In the Galápagos Islands, a new technology is protecting species, promoting the tourism economy and saving lives – all in a day’s work.
According to Scott Henderson, the Regional Marine Program Coordinator for Conservation International’s (CI) Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape program, "the successful implementation of this system in Galápagos captures the essence of what CI hopes to achieve in Galápagos and the wider seascape: find ways to optimize the effectiveness of scarce financial resources, leverage the complementary strengths of a range of partners led by national and local authorities, and protect the marine environment, both for the good of the ocean and the local communities that depend on it."
The presence of so many fishing vessels right outside the reserve suggests not only that the system is curbing illegal fishing, but also that the reserve’s edges are continuing to provide ample fish yields.The Management Challenge
Made famous by Charles Darwin’s expedition more than 170 years ago, the cluster of islands more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) off the coast of Ecuador is known around the world for its outstanding collection of unique wildlife. The Galápagos giant tortoises (Geochelone nigra) and marine iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) may get the most publicity, but the islands’ waters are even more diverse, housing as many unique species as the islands themselves. Emerging from the sea at the confluence of three major ocean currents, the Galápagos Islands sit in the middle of some of the best fishing grounds in the tropical world.
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Yet even in such an abundant fishery, overfishing – primarily by large-scale industrial fishing boats – threatens the unique and fragile ecosystem on which the local economy depends. In 1998, the Galápagos Marine Reserve was expanded to its current size of 133,000 square kilometers (more than 51,000 square miles), making it one of the world’s largest marine protected areas (MPAs). Although the vastness of this reserve is a triumph for marine conservation, its very size also makes it difficult to patrol all areas simultaneously, and expensive to enforce protection.
Park staff have tried using radar and other methods to curb illegal fishing, but bad weather and the difficulty of maintaining infrastructure in remote locations resulted in limited success.
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After several years of development, the National Park Service, WildAid, the Ecuadorian navy and CI have implemented a successful vessel monitoring system (VMS). A small Global Positioning System (GPS) unit is placed on all fishing, tourism, cargo and patrol boats over 20 tons, with all smaller vessels scheduled to join the system in the coming year. Boats regularly transmit their position so that a control center in the Park Service can view any boat’s location at any time.
Scott Henderson describes the system as "the most cost-effective way to monitor a marine reserve used for so many purposes, legal and illegal." Commercial vessels avoid venturing into the park’s protected zones because of the risks of detection and lost revenue (through fines and inactivity during the investigation process).
LEARN MORE: Threats to marine ecosystems.
Saving Lives and Incomes
The implementation of the VMS has as many benefits for local people as it does for wildlife.
About 70 percent of the local economy is based on tourism, with over 100,000 tourists traveling to the islands each year to catch a glimpse of the region’s unique species. By limiting fishing within the reserve, the VMS is effectively safeguarding the islands’ future tourist economy and food supply. The presence of so many fishing vessels right outside the reserve (see map above) suggests not only that the system is curbing illegal fishing, but also that the reserve’s edges are continuing to provide ample fish yields.
Because the monitoring system was created largely to deter illegal fishing by industrial vessels, its success also helps secure the livelihoods of about 500 local fishermen and their families, who now have exclusive access to the marine resources within the reserve.
In addition to these more long-term benefits, the VMS can also have a more immediate benefit: saving the lives of people in peril. The GPS technology allows a boat’s precise location to be determined in a matter of seconds – time that, in an emergency situation, can mean the difference between life and death.
As a result, locals are grateful for this new resource. Ivonne Torres’s husband, fisherman Donato Rendon, was recently lost at sea for four days before being rescued by a boat that happened to pass by the uninhabited island where he and his crew were stranded. His boat was not fitted with a VMS device. Says Torres of the ordeal, "VMS is absolutely necessary. I did not know where to start looking. North, east, west, south – no part was better than the next…the ocean is so immense."
With the expansion of the VMS in the Galápagos, the region’s valuable wildlife can thrive while fishing becomes a safer, more sustainable way of life.
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