Sea Shepherd in the GalapagosAll photos by Christopher Bartlett
Since its discovery by Darwin, the Galapagos Archipelago has been synonymous with diversity, both marine and terrestrial, with 50 endemic species of fish, 28 endemic bird species, and unique tortoises, marine iguanas, sea lions, and the world’s only tropical penguins. Constitutionally part of Ecuador, but geographically isolated, 972 kilometres (605 miles) from the South American mainland, these UN World Heritage Site islands are an equatorial wonderland of animals, birds, fish, and plant life surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, a haven for species found nowhere else on earth, but under increasing pressure from human encroachment and illegal fishing.
The area is under the jurisdiction of the Galapagos National Park Service (GNPS) but it only has a very small fleet at its disposal and cannot possibly control and stop the poaching. In addition, the low penalties have made the risk of being caught perfectly worth running. Some of the hotspots for poaching are to the north of the archipelago where mostly Costa Rican longliners fish for sharks; south of the Archipelago there is an extensive illegal shark finning operation and to the east and west many illegal fishermen from the mainland take their chances on tuna, marlin, and sharks.
Lack of Judicial Force
Most of the longlining takes place at night, and by daybreak the non-local poachers normally move outside the 40-mile limit. If they do get caught, they often get away with having to pay nothing but a nominal fee due to a lack of judicial force in the Galapagos, caused by out-dated legislation. Alongside longlining there are a large number of commercial purse seiners operating around the Galapagos Marine Reserve. On an alarmingly high number of occasions, they enter the National Park claiming to have mechanical or medical emergencies. The law of the sea states that any vessel in distress is given 72 hours to address such problems and this allows the commercial tuna boats to enter the GMR unhindered. Some of the vessels have been seen twice in one year, making their emergencies highly suspicious. Every year local fishermen find several hundred state-of-the-art tuna tracking devices belonging to vessels from most South and Central American countries inside the Marine Reserve.
Captain Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society said “if we can’t protect this place, there is no hope for us; this must be our line in the sand. If humanity cannot protect such a unique and diverse ecosystem, we will not be able to protect any ecosystem.” The series “Whale Wars” has highlighted Sea Shepherd’s high-profile and highly-effective methods in thwarting the Japanese whaling fleet in the southern oceans by enforcing International Law on the high seas, but the means employed from their base in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, where they are guests of the Ecuadorian government, are rather different and more diverse.
Sea Shepherd Involvement
To protect species ranging from the emblematic Scalloped Hammerhead and Galapagos sharks, the abundant Whitetip Reef sharks, and the large schools of pelagic fish, to the less-inspiring but economically and environmentally important seas cucumber, Sea Shepherd has been involved in the Galapagos since 2000, when the patrol ship Sirenian entered into service under a five-year agreement to help the National Park Service clamp down on illegal commercial fishing operations within 40 miles of the islands. The Sirenian became an indispensable part of the GNP and therefore, in October of 2005, Captain Watson signed a new agreement with the director of the GNP to keep the ship patrolling in the Galapagos on a permanent basis.
After opening a local office in 2006, Sea Shepherd has been active on several fronts, according to Captain Alex Cornelissen, the Director of Sea Shepherd Galapagos operations, where they “assist the Galapagos National Park through strengthening equipment, knowledge, education, and processes.”
In 2007, they launched an aerial surveillance program by sponsoring the training of an Ecuadorian pilot to detect illegal fishing vessels, essentially from mainland Ecuador, and Costa Rican long-liners, which has proven to work as a deterrent.
The following year the K9 project was launched, with six sniffer dogs and handlers located on the three main islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabela. Deployed in 2009, these dogs and their guides are the first ever police K-9 dog unit in South America that focuses on the detection of contraband wildlife in the form of live animals, dead animals, and animal parts and are a key component of implementing stronger wildlife protection in a part of the world that is so rich in biodiversity. The project has already paid dividends, with the dogs locating illegal shark fins and thus providing a land-based deterrent to would-be smugglers.
Educational campaigns in the local newspaper and on local radio explaining the importance of keystone species to the islands’ biodiversity and ultimately their economic well-being also appear to be hitting home, with information leading to the seizure of illegal sea cucumber harvests being supplied by local sources. Information from the residents of Isabela Island also brought to light the illegal removal of mangrove areas by the then mayor, Mayor Gil. A shark education schoolbook will also be released to schools, free of charge in the near future.
In 2009, a Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) was installed and all Ecuadorian vessels engaged in fishing above a gross tonnage of 20 tons have had a satellite transmitter installed on-board in order to track their movement. The vessels’ positions are relayed back to the government agencies’ control centres where they are monitored and any suspicious movement is detected. This could be wrongful entry into the Marine Reserve or erratic motion suggesting prohibited fishing activity. When detected, law enforcement vessels are deployed to examine the vessels.
Sea Shepherd is further contributing to this monitoring by employing two technicians who work in Guayaquil for the GNPS. Their information is essential for the detection of poaching vessels inside the GMR and by the beginning of 2010, this had resulted in three purse seiners and dozens of longliners being caught inside the GMR without authorisation.
Yet these successes have been considerably negated by inefficient judicial procedures. None of the parties arrested above have been successfully prosecuted to date. The illegal sea cucumber fishermen simply didn’t turn up for their court hearing in 2007 and have disappeared. Long-liners from the mainland dumped equipment overboard when they realised they were being filmed, but the cost of going to the mainland to arrest them, investigations and court proceedings were prohibitive, and almost impossible to enforce when the defendants jump bail.
Lack of Financial Resources
Lack of financial resources has been a brake in other areas too; government institutions lacked radio equipment and boats often lack fuel for patrolling. One or two shark finning boats are caught every month, but Captain Cornelissen thinks that, with sufficient resources, one could be caught every night, although this would not have been very effective with the previous judicial system in place. “If a case was not presented before the judge and accepted within 24 hours, then charges could not be pressed,” he explained, “so if you couldn’t find or convince the judge in time, there was no case to answer.”
He sees SSG’s mission as to put environmental criminals behind bars. However, considering nobody in the Galapagos has ever been convicted for environmental crimes, despite the fact that legislation against them was introduced 12 years ago, it will be no easy task. “Problems lie with the judicial apparatus and with procedural law. Not all lawyers, prosecutors, and judges are skilled in environmental issues. Procedural law does not help either, as it includes certain options, such as bail, available to those violating environmental laws. Once released, the suspects often disappear from the islands, leaving the penal cases suspended.”
Administrative sanctions, although applied, have not prevented lawbreakers from returning to the Galapagos Marine Reserve, strengthening the case for criminal environmental law to be further considered as a tool for conservation. “The damage to the islands and the GMR is enormous, and unless something is done to halt this, Galapagos will lose its magic within decades,” he continued.
To begin redressing this issue, Sea Shepherd organised a judicial conference in the Galapagos in May 2010 which has led to the appointment of the first ever Environmental Prosecutor, a man who understands the specific environmental laws and the islands’ needs. With the help of a renowned Ecuadorian lawyer, they are working on improving the implementation of existing environmental laws. They are providing feedback to Ecuadorian legislators to help improve existing laws to effectively prosecute environmental crimes and are working towards drawing national and international attention to the current issues in the Galapagos.
Rights of Nature
With the innovative Ecuadorian constitutional recognition of the rights for nature as their cornerstone, and in recognition of the UN World Charter for Nature, Sea Shepherd will access the judicial system by reporting illegal activities to the authorities, demanding hearings, and even acting as procedural parties by filing accusations. “We will do this on behalf of all marine life and against those who don’t seem to understand that the Galapagos and its marine reserve are protected areas under Ecuadorian law, and a World Natural Heritage Site. We will eventually become legal prosecutors of the people that break the laws in place to protect the Galapagos Marine Reserve,” Captain Cornelissen stated.
To help catch environmental criminals and to deter others, SSG is paying the wages of two staff members on the Tiburon Martillo, a permanently-moored, floating ranger station managing a small armada of patrol craft in the north of the archipelago – an area that is attractive to poachers due to the abundance of sharks. In addition, a major improvement in radio communications was implemented in 2009 when the police, quarantine control services, the pet control department, and The Charles Darwin Foundation received a donation of two complete UHF repeater stations, 160 handheld radios, main antennas and base radios. Major maintenance was also performed on the Galapagos National Park Service’s radios.
Whilst the control and surveillance provided by the VMS is an improvement, foreign vessels remained undetected and smaller vessels were not being monitored. One of the problems with VMS is that it uses an expensive satellite connection to transfer data. Small vessel owners often don’t have the money to cover these expenses. Additionally, the time interval of the transmitter has been set at one positional reading every hour, which is too low to give a clear picture of vessel movement, especially when dealing with small, fast boats.
Automatic Identification System (AIS) Monitoring
Thus, a new, state-of-the-art, Automatic Identification System (AIS) to enable the monitoring of vessels over 300 tons, and all passenger vessels has just been launched. With one million U.S. dollars of funding from the Dutch lottery, an array of repeaters will track ships in Galapagos waters. The installation of solar-powered repeaters on eight fixed locations, as well as installation on the GNP vessels will ensure full coverage of the entire GMR. The major benefit of this system is that all vessels can be monitored and small fishing vessels will be equipped with AIS-B transceivers, powered by solar panels as these boats usually do not have a power supply of their own. The incentive for them is that if they ever require assistance, their position is known.
The GNPS will provide AIS transceivers at rental cost to foreign vessels entering the Park boundaries. The ultimate goal is that no vessel will be allowed to enter the GMR without a transceiver. Most ocean-going ships already have AIS installed and it really is a matter of time before this network is set up all over the world. “Sea Shepherd is proud to be the lead organization on this project because it is vital to shutting down this rampant poaching that is detrimental to marine wildlife,” affirmed Captain Cornelissen.
“A famous Spanish poem by Antonio Machado says: ‘Caminante no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.’ Loosely translated this means: walk in places where there are no roads and your footsteps will create the road,” he added. Let’s hope this road leads to the effective preservation of the uniquely diverse archipelago and sets the example to be followed before it is too late.