Marine Conservation And Human Conflicts In The Galapagos Islands

by Rodrigo H. Bustamante (rbustama_temp [at]

Disclaimer: This document represents my individual opinion and analysis based on six years of working in Galapagos and it does not represent any official position of my former and/or current marine research institutions.

Many serious conflicts and clashes between the Galapagosí local small-scale (or artisanal) fishing sector, the authorities and conservation scientists have occurred between 1992 and 1995, and these have been in the news for many years now (1). Most of these conflicts started with the commencement of sea cucumber fishing (2). Until early 1999, the number and intensity of these conflicts declined substantially and substantial progress has been made toward conservation of the marine ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands (3). The key to preventing these conflicts was the complete ban of sea cucumber fishing, because at that time there was no information whatsoever, or resources or the capacity for control and management. At the same time, a participative process was developed for creating new legal, administrative and community participation structures, designed to provide a holistic framework for conserving Galapagosís marine ecosystems (4). However, conflicts started again in early 1999 when the sea cucumber fishery was legally reopened, even though capacity for social and environmental management was still undeveloped. That is; (a) the participatory management system had not fully "matured", (b) the fishery lacked limited entry license provisions, and (c) control and enforcement capacity was not yet adequate. Since then, the intensity and number of conflicts have grown, culminating during November 2000 with the most intense and violent experienced so far (5).

In brief, the latest clashes occurred when the four-month spiny lobster fishery for 2000 (September to December) was closed at the end of its second month (October 2000). This was done in accordance with the rules of the consensus-based fisheries management, i.e. when the 50 tonnes quota of lobster tails for the season was surpassed, in this case by ca. 10%. The closure was appealed on the 7th of November by the fishing sector at the local Participatory Management Board (PMB, composed of local authorities, the tourist, fishing, and conservation sectors), but the closure was reconfirmed. Despite this, between the 13th and 17th of November 2000, some local leaders mobilized some fishers to close tourist sites, disrupt work and invade local government institutions (municipality, Park Service offices), giant tortoise rearing center, and offices of the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS). During these days, work was disrupted, some of these premises were vandalized, equipment was destroyed, culminating in the island of Isabela (the largest and the second less populated ~1,000 people) where the station and the Galapagos National Park Service (GNPS) offices were vandalized and destroyed, respectively. Furthermore, in a clearly criminal act, the private house of Mr. Juan Chavez - the Head of the Park office in Isabela - was invaded by a mob of angry fishers, his family belongings taken (his young children toys and clothes were distributed among the raiding fishers). His house, at the time in construction, was totally wrecked and the construction materials were destroyed or stolen (J. Chavez, pers. comm.).

What were behind these acts of vandalism? The answers are complex, with several considerations needing to be taken into account to understand this difficult situation.

First, the participatory management process requires that decisions agreed during the process must be respected. Law enforcement is then needed, and in the case of Galapagos, has been inadequate. This inadequacy has reinforced the impression among fishers (and some Galapagos politicians) that mobilizing masses for pressure and violence is an acceptable way of achieving outcomes.

Second, the closure of the lobster season provided a "good" excuse for some sectors of the fishing community to pressure local authorities about other recent fishing restrictions that attempt to reduce increasing and unregulated impact of fishing on marine species. These restrictions are the banning of the use of long-lines and prohibition of all sharks fishing (all species banned or restricted until ongoing negotiations and technical reports are completed).

Third, not all fishers and fishing communities in Galapagos are the same, nor behave the same. The majority of the most aggressive and belligerent ones are newcomers (1-5 years in Galapagos), attracted by the "gold rush" of fisheries for sea cucumbers and shark fin, with no long-term goals or commitments towards conservation and sustainable development. Some are larger and older, others are relatively small and new, but in both cases, unscrupulous seafood dealers and shrewd but shortsighted politicians and community leaders influence and lobby against management and conservation provisions as their political platforms, depicting the authorities as "oppressors" of the poor fishing communities (with the hope that this will secure them votes for next election!).

Fourth, despite the advances for conservation in the Galapagos, some unresolved issues still remain that are critical for the long-term success of marine conservation. The most important is the lack of detailed regulations of artisanal fishing within the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR), overdue since 1998. Because of its slow nature, the participative process has so far failed to define the limits for fisheries growth of numbers of boats and people, nor has it detailed technical specifications and/or dimensions of boats and fishing arts. These are still under ongoing assessments and further negotiations.

Many accounts posted in different media regarding the November events in the Galapagos are devoid of context and do not reflect the complexity or understanding of the nature of the fisher's "problems". For example, in Galapagos, fishers insist that their problems must be solved immediately -i.e. their problem is not one of declining income, such as all the rest of Ecuadorians have experienced over the past and current economic crisis. On the contrary, a boom in the gross income of the fishing sector has occurred since 1998 thanks to the "gold rush" fisheries (sea cucumbers with an additional US$3.5-4.0 million per two-month-season a year, and shark fin, which is not properly known since is illegal but believed to be about $100 for the fins of one fish). Rather, the central problem is the poor or unregulated entry to fishing, resulting in a dramatic increase in the number of registered fishers and boats since 1999 (> 120% and 80%, respectively). Many local people who are not primarily fishers, including public servants and bureaucrats, farmers, and part-time tourism workers, have declared themselves to be fishers and most fishing cooperatives have accepted them and pushed, with threats, for them to be given fishing permits. This problem is compounded by various fisheries specific factors:

  • Some fishers have acquired loans to insert themselves competitively into these gold-rush fisheries, and now they cannot repay their debts,
  • Some fishers have acquired obligations to unscrupulous dealers, who require them to provide illegal products as payment - a culture in which illegal acts are the norm has developed in some parts of the sector,
  • Fishers are faced with income that is very high in some months and then low in others, making financial management difficult, and
  • The high gain fetched by sea cucumbers (legal and illegal) and shark fins (all illegal), and the rising value of lobsters (legal and illegal), have raised income expectations, so fishers feel they have a "right" to exploit whatever will earn them fast money.

The last point in particular has impacted negatively on the entire Galapagos society. Since the development of the sea cucumber fisheries back in 1992/3, the level of expectancies for incomes have been greatly magnified, and now fishers do not want to go back to the less rewarding traditional and probably more sustainable fisheries. Similarly, the whole Galapagos society has changed as a consequence of this strong economic drive. For example, immediately after sea cucumber fishing started, the first brothel was opened in the most populated island. Since then, more have developed and even in 1994 a "floating" one was deployed on sea cucumber fishing grounds! Similarly, in 1999 the first gambling operation started in the island of Santa Cruz owned by a sea cucumber dealer.

Within this complex social scenario is where effective conservation and management of the marine ecosystems must occur. So, despite the nominal and effective advances (laws, plans, process, social forum, zoning, migration, quarantine, etc.), the conflicts created by social drivers for fishing in Galapagos remain unchallenged. To defy these drivers, the remaining work goes beyond the scientific understanding of its ecosystems and resources, but will demand increasing work to influence social and economic forces. These aspects, and also broad-base education, are still the weak links for marine conservation, but increasing work is being developed and will probably advance further in the next years. Unfortunately, conservation problems develop faster than their solutions. Putting the Galapagos Marine Reserve problems into the temporal and spatial perspectives, the current conservation legal and administrative framework started in March 1998 - only two-and-a-half years ago. Since then, the Galapagos Park Service (GNPS), the new legal administrator of the GMR, has moved as fast as possible to build up control and enforcement capacity, but this remains inadequate to control more than 100 islands over ~140,000 km2 using only two patrol boats and limited trained personnel and resources. In addition, the GNPS has the legal mandate for the management of the terrestrial Galapagos National Park (~97% of all islandsí surface), which has much greater conservation and protection problems with invasive alien species - the single most important threat to the terrestrial biodiversity of these oceanic islands.

Despite these conflicts, some significant advances have been achieved towards effective marine conservation. For example, thanks to the increasing marine role of the GNPS (mainly terrestrial), the continual presence and efforts of the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands (CDF), the international scientific community and young enthusiastic Ecuadorian scientists, a great deal of marine research and scientific understanding has been achieved in the past 5-6 years (7). The increasing scientific effort in turn has attracted increasing international interest as information and data becomes available (8). Another positive example is that all industrial (large-scale commercial) fishing was legally prohibited within the GMR. The new management plan (passed in April 1999) defined a new zoning scheme for the reserve to achieve effective conservation and fishing regulation, separating extractive (fishing) from non-extractive uses (tourism, protection, science, and education). This zoning (passed in March 2000) has created a de-facto network of No-Take-Areas (NTAs) that account for ca. 20% of the Galapagosís coastline. If properly enforced and complied with, and routinely monitored and evaluated, this NTA network will represent a significant global benchmark towards biodiversity protection and resource management.

Whatís ahead? In a nut shell;

  • To strengthen and consolidate the participatory management, including renewed efforts to support the weak basis of the stakeholders and to make a real connection between bottom-up and top-down decision-making for management and conservation.
  • To help and facilitate the Ecuadorian authorities to publish and implement the special regulations for fishing and its development within the marine reserve.
  • To promote and expand the incipient research and understanding of the economic and social drivers that are affecting conservation, with the objective to incorporate the relevant factors into an integrative model for human development guided by the protection and conservation goals for the Galapagos Islands.
  • To expand the marine education and awareness programs to all four inhabited islands, with special attention to local leaders and politicians in order to find a common vision for long-term conservation.
  • To initiate a broad-base communication campaign aimed to all fishers to realize that increasing numbers of fishers on cooperative books is not in their interest at all but is only in the interest of the leaders because of the expanded power base.
  • To strengthen the fisheries and fishing independent management of single-species fisheries based on sound demographic approaches incorporating economic and social parameters, and at the same time initiate multispecies approaches to understand the consequences of fishing on other components of the marine ecosystem.
  • To increase the protection and monitoring of the NTA network as the most important management tool for conservation of Galapagos marine biodiversity.

All the above and forthcoming advances toward Galapagos conservation have been and will only be possible because of the substantial and continual Ecuadorian commitment (4, 9, 10). Similarly, the international community, including the US Agency for International Development, the European Union, The Pew Charitable Trusts, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Barbara Delano Foundation, the WWF, the UK Darwin Initiative, the Avina Group, and others, have made significant investments to support this and future conservation of the Galapagosís marine biodiversity.

Quick references for further general information

(1) History of Conflicts:

(2) Sea Cucumbers Conflicts:

(3) Overall RMG Achievement/info:

(4) Special Law for Galapagos:

(5) November 2000 Conflicts with Fishers:

(6) Industrial Fishing Threat:

(7) Marine Biodiversity:

(8) Major international scientific workshops:

- Biodiversity Conservation Vision

- Placing Fisheries In Their Ecosystem Context (9) Ecuadorian Support for Conservation: (10) Translated text of the letter from the President of Ecuador, Dr. Gustavo Noboa, on the events of ember 30th 2000 in the Galapagos Islands, sent via the Environment Ministry to the country and the international community:


In view of events that occurred in recent weeks in the province of Galapagos, instigated by a group of artisanal fishermen who want to secure unrestricted fishing of marine species, the National Government ratifies the countryís commitment to guarantee the conservation of the extraordinary biodiversity and ecosystems of the archipelago. Also ensuring a rational, responsible and sustainable utilization of its vulnerable marine resources, in a peaceful environment for the enjoyment of present and future generations.

To accomplish this objective, the government has made the resolute decision that the existing laws be strictly followed, as well as the commitments agreed by the collegiate body recognized by the Special Law of Galapagos and its General Regulation, as the Interinstitutional Management Authority (IMA) of the Marine Reserve. In this framework, those who have infringed the existing rules and laws with unjustifiable acts and measures of violence will be sanctioned with the full force of the law. Their actions obstructed the regular function of the community and the development of legitimate activities in the archipelago while affecting the national and international image of the islands.

Attention to the needs of the province of Galapagos is amongst the fixed priorities of the National Government. For this reason important programs and projects are being executed, to improve the basic social infrastructure of the populated zones of the islands, mitigating the negative environmental impacts while improving work conditions and the quality of life of the islander population. The crucial basis for all actions is the conservation of this unique natural environment of the planet, an attribute, which has earned the archipelago recognition as a World Heritage site.


Note: Since the November events, the island of Isabela has been militarized, military and police personnel are guarding SPNG and CDRS premises, 15 arrest warrants have been issued against the responsible of the actions of violence and rioting, 3 of them are in custody waiting for prosecution, while the remaining are still at large.