The Galápagos Islands; Beauty and the Beast


What makes the Galapagos Islands so magical? Also known as the “Enchanted Islands” by pirates and sailors because of the odd direction of the currents, the Galápagos hot spot that generates these volcanic islands happens to be located at the meeting point of several influential currents that feed it the rich nutrients and provide diversity. These currents, which include the cold Humboldt Current traveling north from South America and the Panama Current traveling south from Central America, make the islands cooler than you would think and provide the perfect environment for the unique mix of wildlife that inhabits the islands. The unique flora and fauna of the Galápagos makes this place a unique destination for the adventure seekers, bird watchers, animal lovers, scientists and scuba divers.

Land based operations as well as numerous live-a-boards offer divers services from a day trip to 7 day cruises up to Wolf and Darwin, two very small islands in the far north that are havens for hammerheads, Galápagos sharks, dolphins, whale sharks, turtles, jacks, eels, rays of all sorts, and so many fish.

This richness in wildlife unfortunately brings in the predators looking to plunder and make a profit with no regard for the environment. Fishing locally has never been much of an issue in Galápagos. Tour boats, hotels, restaurants and homes buy fresh fish from the local fishermen. The issue begins to take an ugly turn when there is an external market that influences the local population to pillage the resources for outside cultures. Long lining fishing for shark fins is the perfect example.

Long line fishing is a commercial fishing technique which uses a long line, called the main line, with baited hooks attached at intervals by means of branch lines called snoods. A snood is a short length of line, attached to the main line using a clip, with the hook at the other end. Lines can be set by means of an anchor, or left to drift. Hundreds or even thousands of baited hooks can hang from a single line.

Though long liners commonly target swordfish, tuna, halibut, and sablefish many other species get caught in the process. Sea birds, turtles, sea lions, rays and many other animals that feed off the sea are treated as “incidental catch”. Globally, an estimated 100,000 albatross are killed this way per year.

In the Galápagos, especially the regions where there is little tourist boat traffic and activity allowing for the fishing boats to sail unnoticed, long lines are dropped in the waters to catch the sharks for their fins. In the majority of the cases, because the market is looking for fins only, the fins of the shark are sliced off and the body of the shark is thrown back into the ocean… sometimes while they are still alive.

Globally, humans kill an estimate of 73 million sharks a year to satisfy the market destined to those that partake in the rather tasteless and nutrition-less dish of shark fin soup – a dish that does nothing other than show your status in society.

The good news… yes, there is some good news… many markets are making shark fin soup illegal or banning it from their menus. Last July, shark fin soup was banned in California and Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Delaware, Illinois, New York and Maryland. Additionally, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands have all passed similar bans on shark fin sale and possession.

Outside of the US, Asia-Pacific based airlines have announced plans to ban shark’s fin cargo from their flights. Fiji’s national carrier and South Korea’s Asiana and Korean Air are the latest to promise to halt shipments of shark fin and shark-related products from unsustainable and unverified sources. Cathay Pacific, the Hong Kong based airline and the world’s largest carrier of air cargo started the ban in 2012.

So why is there such a strong battle to fight a market that pays so well? It often is said best in Galápagos; “A live shark pays better than a dead one.” What does this mean? The Galápagos Islands and its rich and unique marine life, bring in thousands of divers that provide economic resources for hotels, restaurants, shops and tour operator’s income that would allow them to be sustained by tourism rather than fishing – legal or illegal.

The same shark can be appreciated over and over again while at the same time, it contributes to reproduction as well as maintaining the food chain intake.

Scott Henderson, regional director of Conservation International Eastern Pacific laid it out in three points;

  1. Ocean health. For coastal countries like Ecuador and states such as California that have huge economies and food security dependent on fishing, adopting measures that reduce shark capture is a sound investment in overall ocean health, for which sharks play an important role as regulators of ecosystem function.
  2. Anti-cruelty. For inland states such as Illinois, an ethical and sustainability element comes into play. Do states or nations really want to be part of a global trade chain that often depends on ruthlessly hacking off a live animal’s fins and throwing it back into the water to drown?
  3. Income. Finally, it is simple economics, as in the case of Galápagos, Bahamas, Palau, Hawaii and elsewhere. Plain and simple, a live shark is worth far more than a dead shark.

Overfishing is still a problem and though awareness has caused many people to take action and get involved, the fight is far from over. Organizations have come in to assist the National Park of Galápagos. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, led by Whale War’s Paul Watson has donated a vessel to help the national park patrol the marine reserve.

Cooperation with the Ecuadorian Navy as well as local police authorities have cracked down on vessels conducting illegal fishing within the marine reserve as well… though unfortunately, when it comes to court, several cases are mysteriously thrown out and the culprits set free disregarding and undermining the authority of the different organizations that went through the efforts and motions to enforce the law. Although it sounds odd, environmental protection needs good lawyers that follow cases and help to enforce laws.

What can you do?

Avoid the consumption of shark’s meat, fins, soups, etc. You can also try to avoid companies and/or restaurants that support this. Lastly, you can tell your local politicians where you stand on the matter.

It is important to let governments know your opinion about shark fishing and the fact that it stopped being sustainable a long time ago. Both local (USA) shark fisheries and international ones are deleting a top apex predator from the food chain. Let any government, supermarket, store, or airline know that you will not use their products if they have any relation or association to the shark fishing business.

(Special thanks to Xavier Romero)

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