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Marine Protection

Galapagos Islands Have the Largest Shark Biomass in the World

A group of hammerhead sharks swims over the sandy seafloor populated with garden eels at Darwin Island. These sharks are known for their ability to make sudden and sharp turns as the unique wide-set placement of their eyes allows them a vertical 360-degree view, which is ideal for stalking their prey. (Enric Sala/ National Geographic for National Geographic Pristine Seas)

In a study published this week, scientists from the National Geographic Society and Charles Darwin Research Station found that Darwin and Wolf in the Galapagos Islands is home to the world's largest shark biomass (the total mass of sharks in a given area) in the world.

This is especially welcome news as sharks continue to be hunted for the shark fin trade — with an estimated 73 million sharks killed annually. According to lead author Pelayo Salinas de Leon, "[T]he islands of Darwin and Wolf are jewels in the crown of the Galapagos,” due to the abundance of these top predators indicating a healthy marine ecosystem. 

However, the two-year study funded by Helmsley Charitable Trust also found that reef fish in the area have been severely reduced due to overfishing. To protect its marine life, the Ecuadorian government created a marine sanctuary at Darwin and Wolf in March.

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Rescuing the Vaquita from Extinction

The elusive vaquita marina (Francisco Valverde)

Sea Shepherd and their aging former U.S. Coast Guard cutter, the Farley Mowat, have just completed a four-month mission called Operation Milagro (Miracle) to save the vaquita. They fought a 24/7 battle against gill nets, longlines and the fishermen who deploy them. With a nearly all-volunteer crew of 16, they patrol a vaquita refuge set up by the Mexican government in 2005. Using dragging tools fashioned from the anchors of the illegal nets, they scour the sea day and night pulling up anything they can find, including large gill nets and longlines. WildAid was invited on-board the Farley Mowat to experience and document what Sea Shepherd is doing in the fight to save this unique species.

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Can Reefs Survive Coral Bleaching?

Parrotfish in the Gardens of the Queen (Noel Lopez Fernandez)

Scientists in Australia recently announced that more than 90% of coral reefs in the Great Barrier Reef have experienced bleaching this year due to increased oceanic temperatures from climate change. This is the third mass bleaching event on record and possibly the worst yet — affecting one-third of the world’s corals. Other affected areas include Micronesia, as well as the Caribbean and Hawaii, both of which suffered major bleaching throughout their waters last summer.

Coral reefs provide food and shelter for numerous marine species and they support fish stocks that feed more than one billion people around the world. According to The New York Times, they provide jobs for “an estimated 30 million small-scale fishermen and women [who] depend on reefs for their livelihoods.”

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Illegal Fishermen Arrested in Galapagos Marine Reserve

Illegal fishing vessel Maria Tatiana IV (GNPS)

Late last week, a commercial fishing vessel and its six fiberglass boats were caught illegally fishing within the Galapagos Marine Reserve with a catch of 160 sharks and other fish.

The Maria Tatiana IV, a fishing vessel from continental Ecuador entered the Galapagos Marine Reserve’s boundaries late Thursday night. Park rangers in the Galapagos National Park control center monitored its trajectory using technology provided by WildAid while patrol vessels sped towards the fishing vessel, having been alerted to this suspicious activity.

After a full day and night chasing the poachers at sea, the Galapagos park rangers and Ecuadorian Navy arrested 21 crew members and seized all seven boats, the long lines and the bounty of illegally caught species. These included 81 sharks—36 silky sharks, 24 blue sharks, 14 pelagic thresher sharks, six bigeye thresher sharks and one great white shark.

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Improved Surveillance to Protect Ecuador’s Manta Populations

The park rangers at Isla de la Plata, a part of Ecuador's Machalilla National Park, now have increased protection for their waters. Nicknamed “Little Galapagos” by the locals, the uninhabited island off the mainland coast is home to five species of sea turtles, 20 species of whales and dolphins, hammerhead and whale sharks, and countless species of fish, corals and mollusks. It's also home to the largest population of Giant Manta Rays (Manta birostris), estimated at 1,500 individuals.

Ecuador’s marine biodiversity is important not only for the health of the ocean, but also for the nation's fishing and tourism industries. In a recent study, we estimated the value of manta tourism at approximately $140 million worldwide. 

However, small-scale and commercial fishers frequently engage in illegal fishing that threatens mantas and the health of the marine environment. Trawl and long-line fishing, both popular in Ecuador, affect endangered sharks, sea birds and sea turtles. Unsustainable fishing methods also kill thousands of mantas around the world each year when caught as bycatch. 

This month, WildAid and Conservation International achieved an important milestone in real-time monitoring of Ecuador’s marine environment with the installation of a long-range surveillance camera and radio-based monitoring software (AIS) on Isla de la Plata. The long-range camera and AIS surveillance are part of a comprehensive marine protection plan that will help park authorities prevent illegal fishing in the area, helping to protect its abundant marine ecosystems.

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