Quotes on Galapagos fishing industry


Combined reports on fishermen¡¦s strike




The total take wasn't supposed to exceed 550,000 cucumbers. But in the first two months alone, an incredible 800 fishermen swarmed the Galapagos and snatched seven million cucumbers from the sea floor. Researchers stationed on the islands were outraged. They weren't worried about the sea cucumbers themselves--they're as common as earthworms--but about the Islands' threatened reptiles. After catching the sea cucumbers, many fishermen were illegally going ashore into parklands to dry the cucumbers for shipment. They left behind much debris, raising fears that rats from the fishing boats would scamper ashore and, without predators to stop them, run rampant. Of special concern to scientists: Rats find reptile eggs especially tasty. Says Canadian ecologist Peter Bednekoff: "Rats would absolutely devastate a whole set of species if they got ashore."


After protests from tour operators and scientists, the Ecuadorian government halted the fishing season a month early. On January 3, several dozen fishermen, some armed with clubs and machetes, blocked the only road to the Charles Darwin research station on Santa Cruz island. For three days, they held scientists and their families hostage, threatening to slaughter giant tortoises in the research center's collection unless the fishing season was restored.



The pepineros--who fish for sea cucumbers, or pepinos, that lie in beds off the Ecuadoran coast--said they were desperate: The government of Ecuador had just prohibited them from fishing off the Galapagos, in response to protests from scientists and tour operators who claimed the pepineros were harming one of the world's most fragile, and famous, ecosystems. Carmen Angermeyer, a resident of Santa Cruz, the main Galapagos island, recalls that Ecuadoran TV broadcast a chilling interview with a man in a mask, who "said if they did not get what they wanted, blood would flow."


The government bowed to the demands, opening Galapagos waters to harvesting on 15 October for a 3-month trial period. It set total catch limit at 550,000 sea cucumbers, but "no effective controls and enforcement were ever applied," claims Johannah Barry, an official of the Charles Darwin Foundation Inc., which raises funds for Darwin Station. The foundation estimates the pepineros took at least 6 million sea cucumbers in just 2 months. The Ecuadoran press began airing concerns about overharvesting, and as public criticism mounted, the government halted the sea cucumber season on 15 December, a month early, ¡K



The illegal seizure of national park and research facilities in the Galapagos Islands by an Ecuadorian congressman and poor fishermen early in September renewed the conflict between scientists and recent Galapagos immigrants over the future of islands considered a world heritage site by the United Nations Environmental Program. Participants in the 22-day takeover, angered over government limitations on fishing, threatened to burn critical habitat, take tourists hostage, and kill rare animals.

Although the takeover ended when the Ecuadorian government agreed to negotiate, this threat to the islands was the second within a year. Last January, fishermen armed with clubs and machetes, seized the Charles Darwin Research Station and the national park headquarters on Santa Cruz Island, demanding that the sea cucumber season be reopened. During that seizure, which ended peacefully after three days, ¡K


Last January's protest followed the government's decision to shut down the sea cucumber season one month early. A fishing spree from October to December had left Galapagos waters almost devoid of sea cucumbers. An estimated 6-10 million had been taken during the season, more than ten times the legal limit.




In the last few months there have been armed confrontations between National Park staff and the illegal fishing groups.


"If the high consumption of products from endangered species is not stopped internationally, then little can be done on a local level," warned Cayot. Illegal fishing "is a poverty-related problem," she added.

The Galapagos National Park guards have confiscated 170,000 sea cucumbers and 400 shark's fins in the last few years. But these are thought to total only 40 percent of the true amount of illegal fishing









"They completely destroyed our office and burned absolutely everything," says park spokesperson Desiree Cruz in an e-mail. They also threatened Chavez's life and trashed his home. In other areas, fishers blocked tourist boats from landing, and a local school official who sided with the fishers threatened high school students who had written letters supporting conservation efforts. "Some of this protest activity approaches terrorism," says Darwin Station ecologist Howard Snell, who also teaches at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.


Some research at the station was affected. During a 10-day occupation of station offices on Isabela, hair dryers that kept tortoise eggs warm enough for embryos to develop were taken. Many of the eggs "will possibly die," including several embryos of critically endangered populations, according to recent e-mails to Snell from Ecuadorian herpetologist Cruz Marquez. The fishers also destroyed tortoise pedigree records, which ensure that the different island tortoise subspecies remain purebred. But because the breeding program hatches several hundred tortoises a year, Snell says, the damage was relatively minor.


One environmental group, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, is taking action. Society president Paul Watson and his crew set sail for the Galapagos on 7 December from Los Angeles in Sirenian, a 29-meter former U.S. Coast Guard vessel. Carrying replacement computers and other supplies donated by U.S. scientists, the ship is scheduled to arrive this weekend. Park personnel, aided by three armed members of the Ecuadorian navy, will use it to patrol Galapagos waters for 5 years. The team plans to fight poaching by "confiscating" illegal fishing boats and their cargo. "This is a crisis situation," says Watson. "If we can't save the Galapagos, what the hell can we save?"



KASTE: At the main station of the Galapagos National Park, several dozen park employees gather for an emergency strategy session. In recent weeks, these young, enthusiastic park rangers, dressed in their sharp khaki uniforms, have become the targets of mob violence. The latest outburst came on November 17th and 18th when a group of fishermen, protesting the limits on the annual lobster catch, stormed the park's offices on the Galapagos' largest island. Eyewitnesses say the fishermen torched computer equipment and drove the islands' top park official into hiding, after looting his house and burning his family's possessions in the street.

But to young park volunteer Freddy Jimenez, the worst moment came when the mob burst into a tortoise breeding center and, in front of a group of startled tourists, kidnapped some baby tortoises.

Mr. FREDDY JIMENEZ (Park Volunteer): (Foreign language spoken)

KASTE: `They threatened to kill the little tortoises,' Jimenez recalls. There were even some rumors of a tortoise barbecue. The mere thought of baby tortoise hostages still brings Jimenez to the verge of tears. In the end, the tortoises were released unharmed, but the mere fact that animals were threatened has scandalized the conservation-minded residents of the Galapagos Islands. Juan Chiz(ph), president of the local tourism association, says the gesture verges on the declaration of a culture war.




As The New York Times reports, in recent months fishermen agitated over 1998 laws limiting the catch of sharks, lobsters and sea cucumbers have attacked conservation centers, harassed tourists and even kidnapped some of the islands' emblematic giant tortoises.

As in Newfoundland, where fishermen devastated the cod (see "A Run on the Banks," this issue), industry in Ecuador believes it knows best how to manage the dwindling ocean resource. "They are trying to destroy our livelihood with all their rules and regulations," says Leonardo Rosero Atocha, president of the Isabela fishermen's cooperative in the Galapagos. Carl Safina, a vice president of the National Audubon Society, responds that the fishermen-who have won some concessions as a result of their agitation-are taking the resources much faster than they can recover. "Instead of living off the interest, these fishermen want to mine the capital," he says.




These are dangerous times for conservationists in the Galapagos Islands, whose unique ecosystem inspired Charles Darwin's work on evolution. Last week 30 scientists were held hostage by angry fishermen demanding the right to use semi-industrial techniques in the protected waters around the archipelago. They blocked roads, burned tyres and threatened to unleash goats on pristine islands. Ecuador's government quickly caved in. It promised to set up a committee, on which the fishermen have many allies, to study their claims.



Protection history

In 1959, the government of Ecuador made the islands a national park and now protects nearly all of the Galapagos' more than 22,000 square miles. In 1986, the government created the 29,000-square mile Galapagos Marine Resources Reserve for the waters around the island. International agreements have made the islands a biosphere reserve and the waters a whale sanctuary.

In 1996, UNESCO warned that large-scale fishing, the high rate of immigration and the introduction of non-endemic species -- including cattle, pigs and other domestic animals as well as rats -- were threatening the archipelago's biodiversity.

The U.N. body warned that if Ecuadorian authorities failed to adopt urgent measures, it would include the islands on its list of "endangered world heritage sites," which would mean even more stringent controls.

QUITO, Jul. 15 (IPS)  -- (1997) Washington's ban on undocumented products from the Galapagos Islands was called an important "first step" towards protecting marine resources by Ecuador's Environment Minister, Flor Valverde.

Washington's ban, announced by the U.S. embassy in Ecuador yesterday, is especially important for the sea cucumber and sharks, whose fins are highly prized articles, especially in traditional Chinese medicine.

Valverde said the move was in response to a request made by the Ecuadoran authorities in March.

In Ecuador itself, legislation prevents the sale of sea cucumber and shark, both of which species are in danger of extinction in the waters around the Galapagos Islands. Ecuador's government called for international collaboration to combat the illegal hunting of endangered species in these waters, as their action is threatening the balance of the entire ecosystem.

Essentially, the United States has reaffirmed the application of current law which bans the import of sea products obtained in violation of legislation in the country of origin, said Valverde.


Importance of sea cucumbers

The threat to the sea cucumbers is being driven by culinary demand. Sea cucumbers are highly prized delicacies in many East Asian cuisines, says David Challinor, the Smithsonian Institution's science adviser. A high-quality food, sea cucumber flesh is 50%-60% protein.

Of approximately 1200 species found worldwide, approximately two dozen are considered edible. In the Galapagos, only Stichopus fuscus is fished commercially.

The soft-bodied echinoderms live on the ocean floor, ingesting mud and other sediments from with they extract their food. In bottom sediments rich in organic matter, sea cucumbers can account for 90% of the biomass, according to Elliott Norse, chief scientist of the Center for Marine Conservation in Washington, DC.

Sea cucumbers play a vital role in ocean ecology, says David Pawson, a scientist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Like earthworms on land, they turn over bottom sediments, which helps free nutrients. In the food chain, the sperm, eggs, and larvae of sea cucumbers are eaten by organisms from single-celled animals to fish, Pawson adds.

Scientists are concerned by the sea cucumber harvesting, because studies show that when there is overfishing or when a natural die-off occurs, sea cucumber numbers can be depressed for years. At Chuuk Atoll in Micronesia, for example, populations still have not recovered from overfishing before World War II, according to a 1993 study by Robert Richmond of the University of Guam.


Economic reasons why people exploit the place

Responding to what MacFarland calls "gold rush fever," the Ecuadorians found they could make $100 a day compared with $71 a month from the overfished waters off Ecuador. The fishermen sought shark, lobster, and sea cucumbers for Hong Kong buyers. They set up camps in previously pristine areas, cut down mangrove trees, littered the ground with trash and human waste, started fires, and killed tortoises.



Scientists and conservationists remain concerned. Even though proposals have been made to raise sea cucumbers in captivity as Japan does, the process is not simple. It requires overcoming what Pawson calls "endless difficulties"--finding sexually mature animals, getting them to mate in the lab, finding the right food for larvae, and knowing when to release the sea cucumbers.


Foreign illegal fishing

Conservationists also are worried about proposals to allow long-line fishing in deep waters near the Galapagos. Up to 80 major vessels from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan have already been fishing illegally in Galapagos waters, says Merry Camhi, staff scientist for the National Audubon Society's living oceans program.




Sea cucumbers and takeovers of scientific institutions

Cohn, Jeffrey PBioscienceWashington: Jan 1996.Vol.46, Iss. 1;  pg. 70


Galapagos station survives latest attack by fishers

Dan FerberScience. Washington: Dec 15, 2000.Vol.290, Iss. 5499;  pg. 2059


Showdown in the Galapagos

Langreth, RobertPopular Science. New York: May 1995.Vol.246, Iss. 5;  pg. 20, 1 pgs


United States backs ban on illicit fishing

Mario GonzalezInter Press ServiceNew York: Jul 15, 1997. pg. 1


Fishing for trouble

Jim MotavalliE : the Environmental MagazineNorwalk: Mar/Apr 2001.Vol.12, Iss. 2;  pg. 24


Profile: Local Galapagos island gishermen resort to violence in protest of fishing regulations there, causing concern about conservation efforts and tourism on the islands

Morning Edition. Washington, D.C.: Nov 29, 2000. pg. 1


Fishermen threaten Galapagos

Stone, RichardScience. Washington: Feb 3, 1995.Vol.267, Iss. 5198;  pg. 611, 2 pgs


The Americas: Fishing for trouble; The Galapagos Islands;

The Economist. London: Mar 6, 2004.Vol.370, Iss. 8365;  pg. 56


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