Galapagos News

Rumblings under Sierra Negra Volcano

The Ecuadorian Geophysical Institute reported a few earthquakes around Sierra Negra volcano, located in southern Isabela Island, near the small town of Villamil last Saturday, 6 January.  Registering 2.0 and 3.1 on the Richter scale, these were not major earthquakes, but are an indication that something is up (or at least bubbling up) at Sierra Negra.   There were 2 other similar quakes in the area late last year.  

Sierra Negra is an active volcano, sporting one of the largest calderas in the world.  It has erupted on a few occasions in living memory.  Sitting atop a "hot-spot" over the Earth's mantle, Galapagos is considered as one of the most volcanically active places on Earth, similar to Hawaii.  A very large proportion of the land area in Galapagos consists of bare lava fields  - particularly in the younger western island - including Isabela island.  This is indication of the number and frequency of eruptions that take place there.  Typically, there will be an eruption every 6-7 years in the islands.   

Eruptions in Galapagos are not explosive.  They generally occur as pressure from underlying magma causes the superficial crust to crack open along a fissure.  Jets of lava spurt out for several days to weeks, causing lava flows that make their way downhill, spreading widely as they reach flatter terrain (or the sea) before cooling and solidifying.  Needless to say, everything it its path is lost - wildlife, plants and human settlements. 

The government of Ecuador is sending experts to Villamil today to monitor the volcano.   The town is vulnerable and in the low probability worst case scenario, could easily be obliterated by a lava flow. 

 

Epicentres of recent earthquakes

 

Original 1960 UN report on establishing a research station in Galapagos

Though the mission to Galapagos took place in 1957, Dr. Bowman's 65 page report was not published until 1960.  His mission: 

To:

  1. Determine the practicality of establishing a scientific research station in the Galapagos islands,
  2. Locate a possible site for the research station,
  3. Explore with Ecuadorian authorities the possibility of setting aside one or more islands as an international wildlife reserve
  4. Check on the distribution and relative abundance of certain"vanishing" species; and
  5. Obtain adequate photographic documentation of the islands and the wildlife for publicity purposes.

The "snapshot in time" report provides a fascinating look at all the thinking and the work that led up to the decision to create the Charles Darwin Research Station and who was involved (the USA was leading a good part of that effort).   

It's great reading for any amateur historian preparing a trip to the islands.  The original report, written with a typewriter, is not well preserved digitally.  CNH Tours has taken the initiative to have it completely transcribed, rendering it much more pleasant to read.   Click here to access the report.  

 

Latest "Galapagos Report" just out - in English

Every few years, when enough money can be found, various conservation organizations and Ecuadorian government entities come together to publish the "Galapagos Report" - a collection of introspective reports on a wide variety of issues related to conservation, economy and living conditions / social issues in the islands.

These reports are produced in Spanish, and English language versions are not always available.  We're happy to announce the publication of an English language version of the 2015-2016 report earlier this week - thanks is most part to the work of Dr. Liinda Cayot (the woman who hired me to work in the Galapagos many years ago).  

The latest Galapagos reporthas a number of interesting articles that are worth reading.  The complete table of contents is reproduced below.  To access the report, click here  

 NEW APPROACHES

  • PLAN GALAPAGOS: AN INSTRUMENT FOR THE HOLISTIC SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT OF THE PROVINCE
  • RESEARCH PRIORITIES FOR THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS: A PARTICIPATORY AND COLLABORATIVE PROCESS AMONG RESEARCH INSTITUTIONS, GOVERNMENT AGENCIES AND CIVIL SOCIETY
  • BIOSECURITY IN GALAPAGOS IS VITAL FOR PROTECTING HUMAN HEALTH, THE LOCAL ECONOMY AND BIODIVERSITY

 HUMAN SYSTEMS

  • ESTIMATION AND FORECASTING OF WATER DEMAND IN PUERTO AYORA
  • MEASUREMENT OF EXHAUST FUMES PRODUCED BY WATER TAXIS IN PUERTO AYORA
  • THE PROVINCIAL ORDINANCE FOR THE RESPONSIBLE CONSUMPTION OF PLASTICS IN GALAPAGOS: A CAMPAIGN TO PROMOTE ANOTHER WAY OF LIFE
  • INTERNATIONAL ARCHITECTURE WORKSHOP IN GALAPAGOS: CITIES IN PROTECTED NATURAL AREAS
  • AGRICULTURAL AND LIVESTOCK PRODUCTION IN THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS:  A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS OF HOUSEHOLD CONSUMPTION
  • FOOD NETWORKS, POWER, AND SOCIAL STRUCTURES IN GALAPAGOS: THE MARKETING SYSTEM FOR POTATOES AND TOMATOES BETWEEN THE ISLANDS AND THE MAINLAND
  • IMPORTANCE OF LOCAL KNOWLEDGE AND PRACTICES IN ISLAND FARMING

TOURISM

  • BEHAVIOR AND TRENDS IN TOURISM IN GALAPAGOS BETWEEN 2007 AND 2015
  • NATURALIST GUIDE REPORTS: AN EXAMPLE OF PARTICIPATORY SCIENCE FOR MONITORING IMPACTS OF TOURISM IN THE PROTECTED AREAS OF GALAPAGOS 
  • ANALYSIS OF EXPERIENTIAL FISHING AS AN ALTERNATIVE MODE OF SUSTAINABLE TOURISM IN GALAPAGOS

MARINE MANAGEMENT

  • ANALYSIS OF AGREEMENTS REACHED IN THE PARTICIPATORY MANAGEMENT BOARD 2010-2015 
  • FROM RESISTANCE TO ACCEPTANCE: CHANGED PERSPECTIVES OF THE GALAPAGOS MARINE RESERVE AMONG MANTA’S TUNA FISHERMEN
  • THE DANGER OF CARIJOA RIISEI INVADING THE GALAPAGOS MARINE RESERVE
  • REPORT ON THE POPULATION STATUS OF HAMMERHEAD SHARKS IN THE GALAPAGOS MARINE RESERVE 
  • TEN YEARS OF TRACKING SHARK MOVEMENTS HIGHLIGHT THE ECOLOGICAL IMPORTANCE OF THE NORTHERN ISLANDS: DARWIN AND WOLF

 BIODIVERSITY AND ECOSYSTEM RESTORATION

  • RESTORATION OF THE BLACKBERRY-INVADED SCALESIA FOREST:  IMPACTS ON THE VEGETATION, INVERTEBRATES, AND BIRDS
  • GALAPAGOS LANDBIRDS (PASSERINES, CUCKOOS, AND DOVES): STATUS, THREATS, AND KNOWLEDGE GAPS
  • LONG-TERM CONSERVATION MANAGEMENT TO SAVE THE CRITICALLY ENDANGERED MANGROVE FINCH 
  • NATURAL HISTORY AND CONSERVATION PROSPECTS OF THE FLOREANA MOCKINGBIRD
  • GIANT TORTOISE RESTORATION INITIATIVE: BEYOND RESCUE TO FULL RECOVERY
  • TOTAL NUMBER AND CURRENT STATUS OF SPECIES INTRODUCED AND INTERCEPTED IN THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS

 

     

Fodor's: Don't go to Galapagos in 2018

The travel guide book company, Fodor’s, recently published an attention grabbing headline:  “Fodor’s Top 10 places to not go in 2018”.   Number one on their list was Galapagos.   The article justifies their recommendation as follows:

 “The Galápagos Islands are unlike anyplace else in the world. They’re home to species of flora and fauna that can’t be found anywhere else on Earth. But the centuries of extreme isolation that resulted in the archipelago’s many unique species have left them very vulnerable to outside factors. The Ecuadorian government has instated incredibly strict laws in order to preserve the fragile marine and terrestrial ecosystems from human and, more specifically, tourist interference. It’s not even enough for the government to instate said laws and regulations if visitors are consistently flouting[…..] Even if you follow the rules to a tee, seeds or tiny insects still find a way to reaching the islands and wreaking havoc on endemic populations. 

So be very careful when considering the Galápagos as a destination because once the things that make it such a magical place are gone—the fearless animals, the unique species, the otherworldly environments—we’ll never get them back.”

As the article deals with 9 other places, on can forgive Fodor’s for not getting into much detail.    Their warming is valid, but it has been valid even since people first set foot in the islands (1535 – just for a few hours…).   This recommendation would have been valid last year, and will be valid in 2019.   There is no reason why 2018 is particularly significant.

CNH Tours is very aware of the challenges related to the introduction and dispersal of non-native species in the islands.  I was hired by the Charles Darwin Research Station and the Galapagos National Park Service in 1998 to help address the invasive goat and pig problem.   But more insidious species, such as blackberry and a type of fly are wreaking havoc as well, and these are harder to deal with.  

Because people live in Galapagos now, and because tourism is not likely to be banned, the challenge of preventing the arrival and dispersal of non-native species will be a permanent one.   The authorities have established “phytosanitary” protocols designed to reduce the chances of this happening.  They have sniffer dogs at the airports, planes spray insecticides in the cabin on the way over, people are educated on what is permitted / not permitted in terms of bringing products to the islands.  The Park and the Darwin Station work in tandem at developing news ways to eradicate or control harmful non-native species that are already in the islands.

But no matter how hard they try, the system is not fool-proof.   An additional way to reduce the risk is to reduce the number of people traveling to the islands and between the islands.    That is a tough nut to crack, politically.   Government numbers show that visitation to Galapagos has been increasing rapidly. 

In the year 2000 almost all of the 69,000 tourists to Galapagos embarked on a cruise.   In 2015, of the 225,000 tourists that came to Galapagos (a 326% increase in 15 years), 152,000 were land based tourists, while only 73,000 were ship based.   Government figures show a peak of ship based visitors at 83,000 in 2008 and project a decline to 71,000 in 2021, while land based visitation is projected to reach 209,000 that year.

These numbers illustrate clearly where the problem lies.    Whereas ship based tourism is clearly flat, and capped by the restrictions on the total number of berths allowed in the islands, land based tourism is out of control and overwhelming the authorities’ capacity to manage.   The incremental growth of the threat to Galapagos ecosystems is related directly to the rapid growth in land based tourism.   Even the United Nations through a 2016 decision of the World Heritage Committee, expressed its concern…

“…that comprehensive and effective management responses, in particular as regards the fundamental and related challenges of biosecurity and tourism, continue to require further strengthening of current efforts and urges [Ecuador to] develop and implement a clear tourism strategy for Galápagos, with a focus on establishing mechanisms to discourage rapid and uncontrolled growth in visitation”. 

Galapagos had been placed on the World Heritage in Danger list in 2007, and was removed from that list in 2010 after the government of Ecuador provided enough assurances to the World Heritage Committee that it was addressing areas of concern.  But since then, it is becoming clear that appropriate measures have not been implemented.  

At CNH Tours, we focus on the cruise ship experience in Galapagos - one we believe provides a far superior way to experience what these are islands are famous for.    We feel that cruise ship tourism impacts, though not non-existent, are limited and remain stable and more manageable due to a cap on numbers, whereas impacts arising from land based tourism are growing rapidly due to the absence of a cap on numbers for this type of tourist.  For this reason, we are convinced that choosing a cruise over a land based experience results in a smaller footprint on the islands and that people embarking on a cruise need not feel that they are contributing to a growing problem.   

Fodor’s raises an important issue in its attention seeking headlines, but they deserve more background information to be fully understood.

 

Impress you naturalist guide with the latest knowledge on boobies.

Boobies are among some of the quirky birds you'll meet at a few of the visitor sites in Galapagos.  They might be nesting right on the trail and as you approach, they'll look up at you with an irritated look on their faces, as if to say "Who are you?  What do you want?  Can't you see I'm busy?  Why don't you just move along and leave me in peace!".   

A couple of weeks ago, while at the Darwin Foundation annual general meeting in Quito, I ran into Tui de Roy, a renowned wildlife photographer (she grew up in Galapagos).  She expressed grave concern over declining booby numbers.   This is a pity for the visitor, as they are fun to run into on the trails, and their marvelous display of mass dive-bombing of schools of fish is a memorable sight to see.    

Today, I came upon an article written by Jenny Howard of Wake Forest University in North Carolina that seemed to confirm Tui's observations.  Jenny is part of a team led by David Anderson - a long time Galapagos researcher I met on a few occasions in the past during my time at the Charles Darwin Research Station.  Jenny summarizes the conclusions of a scientific paper written by members of the  the Nazca Booby research team.  The Nazca is one of the three kinds of boobies that nest in the Galapagos.   The study covers 30 years of research and concludes that in 1997 (the year of the last "great" El Niño, when sea water temperatures shot up for nearly 2 years), Nazca boobies' diets shifted from predominantly sardines (which prefer cooler water), to a great variety of fish, with a focus on flying fish.   The research observed that the boobies were less successful in catching enough fish, and as a result, breeding success dropped by 50%.  

So it would seem that Tui de Roy, our photographer, was right.  

However, during my meetings in Ecuador, I came upon Godfrey Merlen, an old friend, and even older Galapagos mariner.   Since the 1970's Godfrey has spent a huge amount of time on the seas around Galapagos, helping marine scientists monitor whales, the National Park service establish remote monitoring bases, and carrying out all sorts of marine conservation related support activities.  When I confronted Godfrey with Tui's observations, he responded "Nonsense!  Booby populations have been exploding these past 2 years - we're under La Niña conditions".   La Niña conditions bring with them cooler waters, preferred by the sardines.

So the cycle of life goes on.  Are the booby population fluctuations just part of a normal longer term cycle?  Or will climate change result in greater and more intense El Niños, leading to greater long term pressures on booby populations?  No one knows for sure.

For the full article, click here.  

Nazca boody nesting on a trail

 

New strict entry requirements? Yes... No...Maybe...

In El Comercio today (an Ecuadorian national newspaper), Lorena Tapia, the president of the Galapagos Governing Council answers question on the confusion that reigns over the application of new entry requirements to Galapagos.    Based on the content, it appears that the requirements for proof of hotel accommodations or cruise ship reservation, along with proof of medical coverage are still being discussed with no clear date for their application.   I would hazard a guess that these might be a long time coming - as the logistics for making these operational / effective will require a significant investment in monitoring tools, and it appears that the Galapagos tourism sector is keen on ensuring that the measures will not be overly disruptive.    

The following are excerpts from that interview, translated into English with the help of Google along with some additional editing for clarity. 

Q: A regulation, in force since the beginning of this year, establishes five requirements to enter the islands.   It is currently under discussion in the Council of the Government of the archipelago. The measures were suspended, but they will be applied next year. What are these requirements?

A:  That the tourist must have a transit control card, a round trip ticket, health insurance (for foreigners), have a reservation for a cruise or for lodging or have the invitation of a permanent or temporary resident of Galapagos.

Q:  Why weren’t these measures been applied when they became official?

A:  When I took over my position earlier this year there were complaints from some sectors, such as tourism.  They told us that there had been no prior information on the measures and that the Galapagos Government Council would better develop some type of on-line tool so as not to have a collapse in the entrance of tourists.

Q:  What did the Council do?

A:  We took those concerns into account and temporarily suspended the requirements, giving us a bit of time to establish a roadmap and new timelines. Several meetings took place.

Q: What kind of changes have been considered?

A: They are more operational type. The requirement for a transit control card will be applied (note from editor: This is in force – you cannot enter Galapagos without a transit control card). The insurance requirement was already contemplated by the regulations, but the Council decided that there must be alternatives to applying it.  An emergency medical coverage system for Galapagos is being contemplated for the medium and long term. 

Q: And about the proof of a hotel reservation, what kind of changes are proposed?

A: They (note for editor: Not clear who “they” refers to) asked us to think about some penalty when tourists leave a place after having booked it. We are looking at establishments that have a reservation system to ensure that the document that grants entry into Galapagos can be verified.

Q: What was the main concern of the tourism sector?

A:  They were concerned over the issue of an effective technological tool from the government side -  this plan must come with improvement from the government side as well.

Q:  Would Galapagos benefit from the national “Tourism Package” initiative, which it seeks to promote travel in the country?

A:  The Ministry of Tourism is clear about the type of visits that the Galapagos needs. That is to say, an ecotourism where the pressure of the travelers does not generate an environmental impact that endangers the archipelago. The measure is welcome as long as the vision of the islands is not affected.

This content has been originally published in Spanish by Diario EL COMERCIO.  The original article can be consulted here.

New species in Galapagos - comes with a twist

Thanks to a keen sense of observation and attention to even the slightest changes in morphology, I was able to discover the appearance of a new species of.... beer in Galapagos during my recent visit there.  Indeed, the bottle was shorter, squatter - likely an adaptation to the pressures exerted by the need to survive rough handling by the dominant mammal in the islands...   The handy "twist-off" cap means you don't have to worry about carrying extra supplies on your outings...

The new craft beer "Endemica" is brewed and bottled in San Cristobal island and is now available in human settlements in archipelago - we are working on making it available on the Samba - the ship we regularly charter.  The richer ale is a very welcome addition to the extremely limited selecting of insipid beers previously available (Pilsner and Club).    Here my old friend Michael Jackson, (author of "Galapagos:  A Natural History" - the original Galapagos guide book), is proudly displaying the new find.   We are co-authoring the scientific description of this new brew.... 

 

 

 

NOT FAKE NEWS: Michael Jackson spotted on a remote beach in Galapagos!

I was in Galapagos 10 days ago, checking in on friends, former Darwin Station and Galapagos National Park Service colleagues, and seeing some of our service providers.   One nice thing to do while staying the the busy and noisy little town of Puerto Ayora for a break is to walk out to Tortuga Bay beach.  It's about a 45 minute walk from town.  This is a very long white sand beach with moderate waves rolling in.  It's beautiful.  At the far end of the beach is a quiet bay ringed by sandy beach with mangrove trees.  Here, you can spot turtles, rays and even white tipped reef sharks if you get in for a snorkel, along with marine iguanas and all kinds of shore birds.

I got up at 5:30AM and headed out there a week ago last Saturday.  I reached the beach and took a moment to gather my thoughts / "smell the roses" etc... and lo and behold, who should show up behind me?  Michael Jackson!   

I first met Michael Jackson in 1985 - he was doing his teaching practicum at the school in which I was teaching science.   I remember chatting with him - he told me about his work as a naturalist guide in, of all places, GALAPAGOS!  How exotic I thought.   A place I'd likely never see in my lifetime.  Michael left guiding to do his masters' degree - and he smartly turned his masters' thesis into a natural history guide book of the islands.  His book "Galapagos - A Natural History" was the first comprehensive such book to be published and has sold thousands of copies since. 

He is currently back in Galapagos to do some research for a new edition of the book.   It was great to meet him there at the beach and to spend an hour or two together, talking about natural history, changes in Galapagos, and his plans for the new edition of his book.   You can buy one on-line here.

 

 

Shark cargo ship penalties softened on appeal

Yesterday, a provincial appellate court (Guayas province) maintained the principle of an earlier conviction against the crew of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 cargo ship, caught last September crossing the Galapagos Marine Reserve without permission, and transporting over 6,000 shark carcasses, most of them endangered.  

The court reduced the captain's sentence from 4 to 3 years of imprisonment, while maintaining the sentences for three assistants to a 3 years, and the rest of the crew (16 people) to one year.  

The ship, originally confiscated, is to be returned to the owner on the argument that the owner was not involved in the decision to cross the marine reserve of to carry sharks.    But the US$6 million penalty originally imposed still holds.

This is good news for sharks and for the Galapagos Marine Reserve.   Though there is no evidence that the sharks were captured in Galapagos or Ecuadorian waters, Ecuador's constitution gives the country the right to protect wildlife and for this reason, courts were empowered to prosecute this wildlife crime. 

We suppose that further appeals may be made - more news to come!  See our earlier stories about this case in the pasts weeks for more information.  

 

Plenty plump penguins!

In an article published on the Galapagos Conservancy website, authors Dee Boersma, Godfrey Merlen (long time CNH Tours friend), and Caroline Cappello report having spotted a many juvenile penguins this year, indicating a very successful breeding season.  During their 2016 survey, only 1 of the 300 penguins they had spotted was a juvenile - indicating a catastrophic breeding season.   This year, during two separate monitoring trips, they saw many plump penguines, and the proportion of juveniles in their count was at 45%! They attribute the successful breeding to La Niña conditions which bring in cooler and more nutrient rich waters to the islands.  In a similar vein, our old friend Godfrey Merlen informed us that he has seen very successful breeding of blue footed boobies over the past 2 breeding seasons - so things are looking good these days for the sea birds.   For more information, click here.  

Galapagos penguin on his/her eggs. 

Picture by Dee Boersma

Tuna fleets benefit from Galapagos marine reserve

A few former colleagues of ours at the Darwin Station co-authored a new paper that just came out, looking into the effects of having established one of the largest marine reserves of the world on the industrial tuna fishing fleet operating in nearby waters.   

Typically, industrial tuna fishing interests are annoyed when governments establish "no-fishing" zones.  That was the case when Ecuador created the Galapagos Marine Reserve in 1998 (which was subsequently recognized as a World Heritage site along with the Galapagos islands in 2001).   

They discovered that the effects were positive on fishing productivity (e.g the amount of effort required to capture a set amount of fish) when dealing with yellow fin and skip jack tuna, but neutral for big eye tuna.  

This is good news for marine conservation proponents, and for industrial tuna fishing interests.   For the full article, click here

Boobies and presidents meet

Galapagos, land of red, blue and just plain old beige footed boobies (the latter is actually known as the Nazca booby) was used as the backdrop for a meeting between the Ecuadorian president, Lenin Moreno, and his Chilean counterpart, Michelle Bachelet yesterday.  The meeting is portrayed by the Ecuadorean press as an opportunity to re-establish closer ties between the two South American Pacific nations after relations had cooled down somewhat in the past years.  

They met at the Royal Palm hotel - among the few luxury hotels in the islands - in part likely due to a combination of its relatively easy access while at the same time being quite isolated, located in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island, just a few hundred metres off the main road.  This time of year, they were likely socked in by the garua, the low mist-laden clouds that tend to gather over the windward side of higher elevation islands such as Santa Cruz between June and December.

Lenin asserts himself in Ecuador

During our time living in Galapagos, we were always surprised by the politically charged names of some of our colleagues - clearly an indication of their parents' political inclinations...  Stalin, Lenin... Washington, Jefferson... but parental aspirations don't necessarily impact on their children.  Lenin Moreno was elected president earlier this year.  Prior to that, he had been the right hand man of the previous president, the very charismatic and authoritarian Rafael Correa.   Many assumed that Moreno would be Correa's puppet while he sat out a mandatory break from serving as president, so that he could return later (à la Putin-Medvedev) - but no sooner was he installed that he expressed his own style, to the frustration of Correa.  The Economist magazine has a good piece on the new president in its most recent edition.  Click here to read it. 

During our time living in Galapagos, we were always surprised by the politically charged names of some of our colleagues - clearly an indication of their parents' political inclinations... Stalin, Lenin... Washington, Jefferson... but parental aspirations don't necessarily impact on their children. Lenin Moreno was elected president earlier this year. Prior to that, he had been the right hand man of the previous president, the very charismatic and authoritarian Rafael Correa. Many assumed that Moreno would be Correa's puppet while he sat out a mandatory break from serving as president, so that he could return later (à la Putin-Medvedev) - but no sooner was he installed that he expressed his own style, to the frustration of Correa. The Economist magazine has a good piece on the new president in its most recent edition. Click here to read it.

Not dead yet! Extinct tortoises being brought back to life...

An article published today in the very presitigious scientific journal "NATURE" describes how very close relatives to Galapagos tortoise species once thought extinct (Floreana Island and Pinta Island tortoises) were found to be living and thriving on the slopes of Wolf Volcano (Isabela Island).  Scientists carried out genetic tests and discovered a number of individuals that not only had elements of the classic saddle-backed shell shape typical of dry low altitude islands (such as Pinta and Floreana), but also had clear genetic fingerprints from these same extinct tortoises.  

32 of these tortoises have been transported to a captive breeding centre in Galapagos and over the years, they will be bred in such a way as to focus on removing genetic traces of the Isabela island species with which the Floreana tortoises had mixed.    In the words of the scientists:  "A genetically informed captive breeding program now being initiated will, over the next decades, return C. elephantopus tortoises to Floreana Island to serve as engineers of the island’s ecosystems".

For the full article click here.  (you will appreciate the article more if you've had some training in genetics...).

 

Image below from Nature journal. 

Distribution of tortoises among Galápagos Islands and representative photos of tortoise carapace morphology. (a) Map of the distribution of tortoises among Galápagos Islands along with cartoons indicating carapace morphology for each. Light grey shading indicates domed morphology, unshaded indicates saddle-backed. Extinct species are noted with †. (b) Larger view of Volcano Wolf on northern Isabela Island. The circle indicates the approximate field location of the current study. Examples of Galápagos giant tortoises with domed (c) saddle-backed (d) morphology.

When sharks have lawyers...

Following the recent big news in Ecuador over the seizing of a Chinese ship carrying over 6,000 mostly endangered shark carcasses, we asked our old friend Hugo Echeverría, a lawyer who nearly singlehandedly helped raise the profile of wildlife law in Galapagos and Ecuador, to give us his perspective of the case.   Thank you Hugo!

 

WHEN SHARKS HAVE LAWYERS

A case about shark’s protection in the Galapagos Marine Reserve

Hugo Echeverría[1]

 

The facts

On August 13, 2017, a ship of Chinese flag was intercepted by Ecuadorian authorities. It was intercepted east of San Cristobal Island, 34.5 nautical miles inside the Galapagos Marine Reserve. It was a vessel of 98 meters of length and 16 meters of breadth. A cargo this size is not something you normally see in Galapagos waters.

Upon inspection, 300 tons of fish were found in its hull, including 6223 sharks of different species, most of them mutilated.

This operation relied on technology designed to monitor every vessel that enters the Marine Reserve. The 6223 sharks found in this ship exceeded by far the record number of 357 sharks found in a vessel caught in 2011. Since 2014, a total of 18 ships have been caught inside the Marine Reserve and charged with different environmental infractions. Not even the total number of sharks found in all these vessels accounts for the immense numbers found in this ship.  

 

World Heritage Site

The Galapagos Marine Reserve is a natural protected area since 1998. Due to its outstanding universal value, the site was included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2001. The legal framework applied in the Galapagos Marine Reserve is based upon rules on wildlife protection, including the application of penal law: In this protected area acts that affect marine species, including possession and transport, are considered as environmental crimes.  

The trial

After interception, the ship was directed to San Cristobal Island, where a trial took place. During judicial hearings, it was established that the ship not only entered the Galapagos Marine Reserve without authorization but it also possessed and transported sharks of endangered species that are protected by Ecuadorian law and environmental treaties. On August 27, 2017, a guilty verdict was issued: The captain and crew were found guilty of illegal possession and transport of endangered species through the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

In Ecuador, Nature has constitutional rights

Since 2008, the Constitution of Ecuador grants rights to Nature. It is a unique juridical perspective, which has been embraced by Ecuadorians, especially among the young.  Ecuadorian society was taken by surprise by the massive popular outcry resulting from this case, with organized demonstrations in the streets of cities on the continent and in Galapagos. A greater social reaction emerged once it was informed that the ship belonged to a immense fleet, of some 300 vessels, located at high seas but just outside the Ecuadorian Exclusive Economic Zone. It was a nation-wide reaction.

It was a reaction that showed the importance of Galapagos to Ecuador, as well as the importance of wildlife / sharks to Ecuadorians: To many in Galapagos, sharks are not fearful predators but they are marine species that are protected in the Marine Reserve. In fact, the hammerhead shark is the symbol of the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

Legal matters

In Ecuador, this case was labelled by the press as the ¨case of the century¨. This case certainly provides important lessons: the legal relevance of international standards on protection of endangered species; the intrinsic value of sharks and their importance to the local economy; the role of ecological sciences in the court room; and, most notably, the rule of environmental law.

Rule of environmental law

At the end of the trial, the Captain was sentenced to 4 years in prison. Depending upon their role, the 19 crew members were sentenced to 1 to 3 years in prison. At the time of writing, they have already been transferred to a penitentiary on the mainland. A fine was also ordered, as well as reparation of environmental damages resulting from the crime, in the amount of a $6,137.753,42.

The ship was confiscated.

Other measures include renaming the site were the ship was intercepted, Punta Pitt. In the future, tourists visiting this site will learn about the case and why it was renamed as ¨Punta Pitt – Punta Martillo¨.

The appeal and civil action

On September 6, 2017, defendants appealed the verdict. This means that the case is not over yet. On the other hand, Galapagos authorities have announced civil actions against the corporation that owns the ship, for the environmental damages caused to the Marine Reserve.

How will this case end? At the time of writing, it is unknown.

It is also unknown if a case of this magnitude will ever happen again. It is unlikely, at least on the short term: Authorities have already strengthened control of the Marine Reserve, with Navy vessels, planes and a submarine.

Law enforcement

What we do know is that the immense fleet of some 300 vessels, left the border of the Ecuadorian Exclusive Economic Zone. This happened two days after the guilty verdict was issued. Law enforcement is all about sending a social message of compliance. This is never easy when it comes to enforcing environmental law, especially at sea. This time law enforcement was effective.

 

Picture:  White spots indicate location of massive offshore fishing fleets.

 

*Pictures

Vessel: Diario El Universo

Sharks: Diario La Hora

Image: Juan Carlos Murillo Posada

 

 [1] Doctor on Jurisprudence (Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador). Master of Laws (McGill University – Canada).

hugo.echeverria@mail.mcgill.ca

 

Best BEACH destination?? Surely you kid.

In all of its wisdom (and back-room sleight of hand), an obscure organization called "World Travel Awards" (whose website provides no information whatsoever on who is behind it / who owns it) has awarded the "best beach destination in South America" to Galapagos this year.   It is amazing how the organization's "best X" awards rotate nicely from one place to another every year - as if a beach (or other category) can only be best for one year and no longer.  It would be nice to be able to "follow the money" at World Travel Awards.

CNH Tours dismisses these awards as self-serving hype.  There is no criteria against which "best beaches" and other categories are considered; there zero transparency on the decision-making process.  The process lends itself to all forms of influence peddling and clientelism.  

Though there are some very nice beaches in Galapagos, the islands are not a beach destination.  People don't go all the way there partake in beach type tourism.  You can get a lot more "beach bang" for your buck elsewhere. Cancun is a beach destination; Punta del Este is a beach destination.  Galapagos is a beach destination like Paris is a canoeing destination. These awards trivialize what Galapagos is all about and commodify what is otherwise an ecosystem unique at the planetary level. 

 

 

 

Dust in the wind - volcano erupts

I get automatic notifications of seismic activity readings in Galapagos - and yesterday, a 4.1 earthquake was recorded between Fernandina and Isabela Islands (this part of the archipelago is under the "hot spot" in the Earth's mantle and it's on that side of the islands that volcanic eruptions usually occur).   I did think to myself "hmmmm... perhaps there will be an eruption somewhere...".   Today, on my Facebook account, I saw a post from our long time friend Gabriela Bohorquez (naturalist guide on duty on the western shores) with the following picture, saying: "Finally, at the right place and at the right time:  The eruption of "La Cumbre" volcano today".

 

 

Chinese crew found guilty of environmental crime

(translated - thanks to Google - and adapted from the article that appeared in the El Comercio newspaper on Sunday, 27 August 2017).

The announcement was made by Lorena Tapia, president of the Galápagos Government Council, in her Twitter account. "Judge sentenced for environmental crime to Chinese boat crew: prison and fine payment," she wrote at 20:00 on August 27, 2017.

Also on Twitter Environment Minister Tarsicio Hail wrote: "Zero tolerance for environmental crimes! From 1 to 4 years in prison for various crew members and more than USD 5 million in fines."

The official also said that the court determined that the ship "goes to the Galapagos National Park service" and said that the fine is USD 5.9 million as compensation.

Walter Bustos, director of the Galapagos National Park, told El Comercio that the ruling "has just created a legal precedent for Ecuador, for Galapagos, for the whole world." He said that as part of the sanction the Chinese vessel Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 will be seized. This, plus the penalty of deprivation of liberty and the fine are "an opportunity for the life of marine migratory species".

In a communiqué issued last night, the Ministry of the Environment assured that the criminal confiscation of the vessel will be in charge of Real Estate and will be "for the benefit of the population of Galápagos, in case of being auctioned the value of the sale will reach the Park National Galápagos."

Bustos explained that "what is happening is that there is a fleet in the Pacific" that has been in places like Baja California and Argentina. "Now it was us, with the difference that here we act with all the rigor of the law and with all the transparency of the case. That is why we have this ruling today. "He also stressed that with the decision of the judge sits" the sovereignty of Ecuador ... in an issue of defense for our natural resources."

The ruling, according to the MAE, "was determined by the evidence found inside the Chinese vessel, which included the holding and transport of protected species (sharks) within the Galapagos Marine Reserve, an offense established in Article 247 of the Organic Code Integral Penal ". This Sunday, August 27, 2017 was the third day of hearing against the 20 Asian crew of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, captured while sailing through the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Judge Alexandra Arroyo was in charge of the process. Earlier, the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park reported that the freighter carried more than 6 620 sharks in its hold. The Park and the Ministry of the Environment acted as private accusers.

It was also heard today that the nearly 300 tonnes of fishing found in the hold of the Asian ship were received from two Taiwanese vessels: the Hai Fang 301 and the Hai Fang 302. According to the crew, the transshipment took place between the August 5 and 7, more than a thousand kilometers northwest of the Galapagos. The ship was captured by the Ecuadorian Navy on August 13, near San Cristóbal Island. "It was also possible to determine, according to the captains' versions, that the vessel entered unauthorizedly into the Galapagos Marine Reserve, bound for Peru, and then returned to China," Galapagos National Park reported in a statement .

The accusation of the Office of the Prosecutor and of the Park's Management was based on the transportation and possession of protected species, an offense stipulated in article 247 of the Integrated Criminal Code (COIP). In addition, the freighter was not allowed to drive through this protected area. Hammer, silky, fox, pelagic fox and maiko are the species of sharks found in the refrigerators of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999. They were heaped and some already without fins, as determined the inspection. The management of the Galapagos National Park has already developed several actions within the case, such as the process of destruction of the first eight tons of fishing, between 21 and 22 August. And it managed the delivery of the ship to the Navy, in operation and with the freezers lit to avoid contamination by the decomposition of the fishing.

$36 billion in damages sought

Ecuador will seek US$36 billion in damages caused to the Galapagos Marine Reserve (a World Heritage site) as part of its case against the owners of the Fu Yuan Leng 999, which was caught illegally crossing the Marine Reserve, with 300 tonnes of fish in its holds (including a large number of sharks) earlier this month. 

The case has made headlines around the world, while in Ecuador, both locals in Galapagos and on the continent have organized rallies against illegal fishing.  Thanks to satellite monitoring of fishing vessels, this case has brought to light the fact that massive fishing fleets are operating in international waters, just outside the Galapagos Marine Reserve, hoping to scoop up fish that move outside its boundaries.

 

Anti fishing rally in Galapagos last week (Galapagos National Park photo)

According to local media, the Fu Yuan Leng 999 is one of a fleet of 300 cargo ships that is operating around the marine reserve, each attended to by up to 30 small fishing vessels.  These small ships travel up to 30 km away from it, fill their smaller holds with fish, and bring them back to the mother "cargo vessel" for refrigerated storage, only to head back out again.   They can enter the reserve undetected.

Ecuadorian authorities claim that this fleet is responsible for impoverishing biodiversity in Galapagos.  Currently, 20 crew members of the Fu Yuan Leng 999 are being in held in Galapagos for the trial that started this past Friday. 

CNH Tours hopes this case will shed light on the massive amount of uncontrolled fishing taking place in the high seas fishing, particularly close to marine reserves and strengthen efforts at bringing sustainable fishing practices throughout the industry.  To be taken seriously, Ecuador will have to show that it is also just as tough with illegal fishing taking place by its own fleet.  

 

 

 

From wild west to civilized society? Clandestine hotel seeks post facto permit

Five years ago, an enterprising business person obtained a permit from the municipality of Puerto Ayora (the main town in Galapagos) to build a house on the “other side”, that part of town accessible only by water taxi.   The other side is the sleepy / quiet side of Puerto Ayora – it currently boasts a few dozen houses, a restaurant and one hotel (the Finch Bay hotel – built long ago).   As the construction of the house began, residents became suspicious.  It soon became obvious that this was not going to be a house, but a hotel.  The construction showed about 20 rooms, each with private bathrooms.   The developer hoped to use an old trick:  i) Get a cheap and easy building permit for a house, ii) build a hotel very quickly (which would not have been allowed in that part of town to start with), and ii) deal with any criticism the usual way, including most likely a few bribes at the right places and arguing that it was a misunderstanding, but now that it is built, we might pay a small fine and start operating.  (story continues after picture)

House or hotel - what do you think?

 

Unfortunately for the developer, Galapagos residents soon became aware of what was happening, and they raised a ruckus.   The project became the poster child for anti-corruption champions, for conservationists and contributed to the growing resentment felt by citizens feeling that the rich and powerful had a whole different set of rules applied to them.   The case was even reported to the United Nations.  

The developer was hoping to catch the “land based tourism” wave that started in Galapagos 15 years ago, showing no sign of abatement yet.   While only about 5,000 visitors came to Galapagos with no intention of taking a cruise in the late 1990’s, that number is now nearing 200,000.    The pressure to take advantage of this growing economic opportunity translated into a lot of unregulated development (hotels, bars, restaurants, rooming houses, day trip operators).   Government authorities have been playing catch up for years, forever being behind the ball.  While some progress has been made in terms of regulation / safety / management, there is still no vision on how things should go from here, with numbers continuing to increase.

As for our hotel owner, his project was stopped by authorities.  They didn’t have him tear it down (what many people wanted) but opted to call for a full environment Impact study.   That study was presented to Galapagos residents yesterday and feedback will be possible over the next few weeks.    Let’s see what happens.

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