Galapagos Marine Reserve Threatened by Hunger for Shark’s Fin

On July 19, 2011, officers from the Galapagos National Park Service and the Ecuadorian Navy stopped the Fer Mary I, a long line fishing vessel out of the bustling Ecuadorian port of Manta as it sailed within the Galapagos Marine Reserve, the pristine chain of islands 1,000 km off the coast of Ecuador.

They found more than just the crew on board; they also found 379 shark carcasses. Shark capture inside the reserve is an environmental crime under Ecuadoran law. The case made international headlines not only because of the illegal cargo but also because of the initially outrageous response it received from the local judiciary, which annulled the case. That local judge was later suspended by the Ecuadorian federal government and the case taken up for review.

This year, after a tumultuous four-year legal battle, the captain of the Fer Mary I was sentenced to two years in prison and each of the 12-member crew received a one-year sentence. Their example demonstrates both the growing legal tide against illegal fishing in the GMR, and Ecuador’s toughening stance against wildlife trafficking.

Wake up call for Galapagos enforcers

The Galapagos Marine Reserve is one of the world’s largest protected marine areas, covering nearly 133,000 square kilometers (50,000 square miles). It’s recognition as a global biodiversity hotspot is well earned, as it is home to over 3,000 different marine species.

The Reserve owes this abundance to an equatorial location where warm and cold ocean currents mix with nutrient rich waters from the ocean floor — providing food to creatures all the way up the food chain.

Since its establishment in 1998, enforcement of Ecuadorian fishing regulations inside the Reserve has been underfunded and its management chaotic. Rampant overfishing, tourist development and an influx of invasive species brought the Galapagos Islands to a crisis point. At the height of the emergency in 2007, UNESCO declared the Reserve a World Heritage Site in Danger. Ecuador’s vigorous regulatory response prompted UNESCO to withdraw the designation three years later.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) however, disagreed with the UNESCO judgement. “IUCN´s recommendation for the Galapagos was that it should not be removed from the Danger List, as there is work still to be done,” said Tim Badman, Head of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, adding “but we recognize the major efforts of the Ecuadorian government to rectify the situation.”

Shark finning remains major Ecuadorian problem

A sobering reality check came in May of this year when a massive haul of 200,000 shark fins was seized in a warehouse in the port of Manta, Ecuador. “The plan was to smuggle the fins to Peru, from where they could be exported legally to Asian markets,” Vice Minister Diego Fuentes of the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Interior said shortly after the seizure. Even though shark finning is illegal in Ecuador, sharks caught as by-catch can be landed legally due to an amendment made to a law in 2007.

“Each set of five fins is worth about $60-$80 U.S. dollars, so we are talking about a huge sum of money involved,” Fuentes said. Shark’s fin soup is a delicacy craved by Asian diners and threatens sharks around the globe.

There is no clear evidence that these particular sharks came partly, or wholly, from the Galapagos reserve, but the crime is a cause for serious concern nonetheless. Reports in 2009 suggested that up to 12,000 sharks are finned per year in the reserve. The Manta catch alone represents around 50,000 dead sharks.

“The seizure of so many shark fins on mainland Ecuador, just 1,000 km away from the Galapagos Islands, is deeply distressing. Sharks play an essential role in the marine ecosystem, and removing them can cause the entire marine ecosystem to collapse,” a spokesman for the Galapagos Conservation Trust said in a statement.

“It’s great news that the Ecuadorian authorities are tackling illegal shark fishing in their waters and the sale of illegal shark products, but it will take a truly international effort to put a stop to this global problem,” the spokesman continued.

Unfortunately, it’s not only sharks that are being plundered from the reserve and other biodiversity-rich tropical waters. There is another, less visible sea creature, not counted among the ocean’s megafauna, but equally lucrative to traffickers supplying the Chinese and Asian market.

The Galapagos “gold rush”

It is believed that the first scouts arrived in Ecuadorian coastal waters in 1989, seeking one of the least charismatic species to inhabit the sea. They were looking for large numbers of sea cucumbers — hoping to replace the depleted fisheries of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands with a new source for this delicacy served in China’s restaurants and homes.

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Brown sea cucumber. Photo by Rein Ketelaars

The discovery of vast populations along the Ecuadoran coast and within the GMR brought waves of migrants to the region, all seeking to tap into the lucrative industry. A sea cucumber “gold rush” ensued. Since then the Ecuadorian government has fought a losing battle, as it tried to tread the line between maintaining sea cucumber populations and catering to fishing interests.

The Galapagos sea cucumber fishery was closed after severe overfishing early on in 1992, but pressure from fishermen forced the government to reopen it two years later. An imposed annual overall fishing quota of 500,000 sea cucumbers was quickly exceeded in the resulting boom, with the harvesting of an estimated eight to 12 million sea cucumbers.

Those regulatory limits were complicated by another almost unenforceable rule: The brown sea cucumber (Isostichopus fuscus) harvested from Ecuadorian waters was favored in Asian markets for its similarity in flavor to the Japanese spiky sea cucumber (Apostichopus japonicas). I. fuscus was listed as Endangered by the IUCN, But oddly, for a long time it remained the only sea cucumber that could be legally fished in Ecuador. Finally, in recognition of the threat the species faced, Ecuador pushed for it to be added to Appendix III of CITES in 2007. Appendix III calls upon member nations to assist another state in the conservation of a species, and requires papers to be registered for export.

Ecuador’s failure to fully protect the brown sea cucumber — only requiring documents for its harvest — resulted in a tangle of legal complications, the worst of which forced authorities to identify and sort out legally caught sea cucumbers from illegal ones. Even though I. fuscus was the only legally fished sea cucumber in Ecuadorian waters, others such as Stichopus Horrens, considered of lower quality, were also harvested and mixed in with legal batches.

Four years ago, Ecuador closed its legal Galapagos sea cucumber fisheries completely to allow overexploited populations to recover, though that hasn’t halted illegal gathering and trafficking.

As a result, Toral asserts that the sea cucumber fishery in the Galapagos today has crashed as thoroughly as the one off the Ecuadorian coast — both are now “economically extinct,” she said. “There are so few [sea cucumbers] in the environment that it is no longer economically feasible for the fishermen to go and collect so many as to become ‘Reyes por un dia’ — kings for the day.”

The gold rush moves to other waters

Ecuador’s sea cucumber gold rush may be at an end, but it’s still in full frenzy farther north on the Pacific coast of Latin America, where fishermen are literally dying to get at the tasty tubular animals.

Mexican reefs have many of the same sea cucumber species as Ecuador, although heavy exploitation of shallow waters in the early 2000s has left the remaining catch at much greater and far less accessible depths. Fishermen now risk their lives to cash in on the increasingly rare and valuable animals.

Sea cucumber fishing offers relatively easy work and quick cash for harvesters. “To be a sea cucumber fisherman you don’t really need to be able to do much but collect cucumbers from the bottom of the sea,” Toral explained. Divers use a method known as hookah: they connect a makeshift oxygen hose to a boat or the shore, and stay underwater for long periods to maximize their catch.”

“The fishermen can earn a million pesos in one day, [though] a week later they don’t have a single peso,” Yamil Antonio Dib, of Ocean Secret México, told Union Yucatan. As in Ecuador during the height of the sea cucumber boom, fishermen live like “reyes por un dia” — flush from their sea cucumber wages; they become kings for a day.

The lure of the illegal Mexican sea cucumber harvest can be fatal. From 2013 to July of this year, the Yucatan health board reported nearly 500 cases of decompression sickness, also known as “the bends,” caused by nitrogen bubbles forming in the blood of deep-diving fishermen. The majority of cases reported were due to sea cucumber gathering; over the same period 16 deaths were reported, five this year alone.

Nature’s invaluable recyclers

Sea cucumbers don’t capture the public imagination as shark species do, but their overexploitation and depletion may well play havoc with marine habitats across the world’s oceans.

“Although they are not sexy at all — they are not good looking, and people don’t tend to pay much attention to them — they are key players in the health of ecosystems,” Veronica Toral, a marine biologist at Charles Darwin University, told mongabay.com. There are two kinds of cucumbers, she explained: one type feeds with its mouth facing downward, rummaging through sand for food, and preventing the sea floor from compacting. The other feeds on marine debris and zooplankton in the water column. The latter, she said, are the “recyclers of nature”.

According to one study carried out on the Australian Great Barrier Reef, such recyclers play a vital role in reducing ocean acidification — a threat to coral reefs that is quickly worsening due to human-caused carbon dioxide emissions. Sea cucumbers ingest debris and excrete waste that is alkaline, helping to neutralize acidification of surrounding waters that can harm and kill coral.

“The ammonia waste produced when sea cucumbers digest sand also serves to fertilize the surrounding area, providing nutrients for coral growth,” Professor Maria Bryne, of the University of Sydney and a lead researcher at the One Tree Centre, said in an interview. Her team’s research found that sea cucumber excretions of natural calcium carbonate are also crucial to coral reef growth, and without their presence acidification could have a much more devastating effect.

Ecuador reopens its sea cucumber fishery

Recently, the Ecuadorean government quietly decided to reopen the Galapagos reserve sea cucumber fishery. The decision was taken despite a recent population survey suggesting that densities have yet to fully recover from years of overexploitation.

According to a report by the Galapagos National Park Service, (available here in Spanish) the critical sea cucumber density is 11 per 100 square meter of sea bottom — however, between 2013 and 2015 densities of only 6 cucumbers per 100 square meters were documented.

“The current state of the GMR does not guarantee the sustainability of the species over time,” says the report. It cites clandestine fishing as among the likely factors hampering the recovery. “The monitoring data presented indicate that despite four years of the moratoria the [sea cucumber] populations remain in a critical state with no sign of recuperation.”

Low density poses a serious problem for sea cucumber reproduction as they are “very particular” when it comes to mating, according to Toral. “(T)hey send the gametes, the sperm and the eggs into the water column, and just by chance, the water column will bring them together and fertilization will occur. If you have one cucumber here, and the female 200 meters away from it, the chances are almost nil,” for reproduction. “So the natural recovery of a population that has been exploited is unpredictable to say the least.”

The economic extinction of the sea cucumbers has not stopped opportunistic illegal fishing in the GMR. In June of this year, 10,852 sea cucumbers, weighing in at 262.8 kilograms (579.4 pounds), were seized at the Galapagos’ San Cristobal airport. According to Galapagos Digital, this haul would sell for $173,448 at Chinese market rates.

Nobody fights for the lowly sea cucumber

The hunger of Chinese markets has caused sea cucumber fisheries to boom and spread around the globe, according to a recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

“In just 15 years (1996–2011), the sea cucumber sourcing network expanded from 35 to 83 countries,” says the study. “Sea cucumber fisheries serving the Chinese market now operate within countries cumulatively spanning over 90 percent of the world’s tropical coastlines.… Surging imports from these new fisheries have compensated for declines in long-standing fisheries elsewhere.”

The researchers go on to say that, “The case of commercial sea cucumber trade for the Chinese market exemplifies a new global extraction phenomenon that we call contagious resource exploitation — a fast-moving system resembling a disease epidemic, where long-distance transport expedites large-scale expansions.… Multi-level and multi-scale [regulation and] decision making is urgently needed to control and mitigate the effects of contagious exploitation.”

There is some good news regarding this new global contagion: Chinese market dynamics are shifting to reduce demand for some seafood delicacies. There are indications that demand for shark fin, for example, the luxury food of choice for centuries, is losing sway with the Asian public. WildAid reports that shark fin trading is declining and public tastes are turning away from shark fin soup.

Anti-corruption crackdowns by Chinese authorities on shark fin soup slurping dignitaries, along with intense conservation work, including support from NBA legend Yao Ming, have combined to whittle away at demand.

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The final product: shark fin soup.

Sea cucumbers aren’t part of that trend, however. Unlike sharks — and despite their vital ecological importance — sea cucumbers are not valued as living creatures. “They are not charismatic, beautiful animals that produce a warm fuzzy feeling when you look at them,” Toral said of her chosen research species. “I mean, they look like cucumbers, and they just happen to be animals.”

The sentencing of the Fer Mary I crew may signify a shift toward tighter restrictions on seafood trafficking in Ecuador, but for the sea cucumber new regulations may already be too little too late. The GMR gold rush has come and gone, and left in its wake severely reduced populations that, if continually fished without being given time to recover, may harm the Reserve’s reef ecology permanently.

The case of shark finning conservation presents important lessons for conservationists. Sea cucumber preservation in tropical coastal fisheries around the world will clearly require concerted, coordinated and intense enforcement and education efforts in both source and demand countries by governments and NGOs. Of course, that likely won’t ever happen unless human beings begin taking one of nature’s least charismatic marine species a lot more seriously.

Reprinted with permission from Mongabay