How new initiatives are protecting the Galápagos for future generations

The new Hermandad marine reserve is the latest conservation initiative to bring vital protection to the pristine waters of The Galápagos islands.

Pinnacle Rock on Bartolomé Island, overlooking Santiago Island.

Photograph by Getty
By Mark Stratton
Published 28 Aug 2022, 06:03 BST

It’s night aboard the Santa Cruz II and the Pacific Ocean thrashes with endemic Galápagos sharks. Using our ship’s lights, we watch the creatures below hunt flying fish with quicksilver agility, some of the hapless prey crashing into our vessel’s hull, around which sea lions wait for an easy meal. A huge green turtle pops up unawares amid the melee, before swiftly returning to the depths. Such is the Galápagos’s scintillating theatre.

The Galápagos Islands (a national park since 1959) can thank large upwellings of cold currents for their staggering marine biodiversity; water that ushers in a rich soup of nutrients, helping to support a food web that contains abundant marine and terrestrial wildlife — a large proportion of which is found nowhere else on Earth. It was this uniqueness that the British naturalist Charles Darwin observed soon after stepping ashore on San Cristóbal Island in 1859, setting him on a path to publishing On the Origin of Species, which outlined his groundbreaking theories on evolution. 

Fast forward to 2020, and some of those charismatic creatures — including the sharks I encounter under our ship — are being netted by a huge Chinese fishing fleet not far outside the Galápagos Marine Reserve (GMR), a 53,000sq mile protected marine habitat created in 1998. With Galápagos marine wildlife already subject to food shortages during intensifying El Niño events, such industrial overfishing — a threat to both conservation efforts and tourism — prompted the Ecuadorian government to expand the existing marine reserve. This year, in January it created the 23,000sq mile Hermandad Marine Reserve.

“The Galápagos Islands are one of the best-kept national parks in the world,” says Roque Sevilla. As chairman of Metropolitan Touring, Ecuador’s first carbon-neutral tour operator, he was one of the primary movers behind the new reserve. “Just think of an African national park with a dozen vehicles surrounding a lion,” he says. “Here, only one boat at a time can enter a landing point on an island, and groups are limited to 16 per guide.” 

Roque says tourism has been a positive force for the Galápagos: funding conservation, providing 80% of the islands’ economy, and jobs for born-and-bred Galapagueños. Tourism is well controlled, he believes. “There’s a de facto limit to the number of visitors who can sail here, with a fixed 1,690 berths on all ships per day, and this quota hasn’t changed since 1998,” he says. Likewise, human migrations onto the islands are strictly controlled. Visitors currently pay a $100 (£81) fee to enter the Galápagos National Park, which funds its activities. Its director, Danny Rueda-Cordova, says this may be increased to refocus on low-number/high-yield tourism. He says visitor numbers fell from a record 270,000 in 2019 to half that in 2021 at the peak of the pandemic. Because most of them were Ecuadorians (who just pay a $6/£4.90 entry fee), revenues fell, affecting funding.

Other challenges facing the Galápagos include intensifying El Niño episodes triggered by global ocean warming. This natural phenomenon becalms the usually strong equatorial trade winds that push warm water westwards away from the Galápagos, allowing upwelling cold currents to deliver rich phytoplankton into the food web. During an El Niño event, nutrient productivity in warmer water drops dramatically, triggering starvation among key marine species. 

In addition, certain invasive species introduced by humans, such as fruit flies and rats, have pushed a number of creatures to the brink. One of Darwin’s evolutionary miracles, the mangrove finch, is near extinction due to the accidental introduction of the sinister-sounding avian vampire fly in the 1960s. In June 2020, a new threat loomed: a fleet of 300 Chinese trawlers had assembled just outside the GMR.

New reserves

The writing had been on the wall. In 2017, the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 was seized after straying inside the GMR. This ‘nanny ship’ (a refrigeration vessel) was carrying 300 tonnes of illegally caught species, including 7,639 sharks. Twenty crew members were jailed and the vessel was confiscated by Ecuador after the non-payment of a $6.1m (£5m) fine. 

Then, in 2020, the 300-strong trawler fleet began fishing intensively, clocking up 73,000 hours in one month alone. It fished heavily for squid, a key food source for many Galapagueños species, but also pulled out migratory hammerhead sharks and manta rays. The presence of the Chinese fleet caused consternation amid Galapagueño fishermen, who complained their own catches were down.

More safeguarding was needed. “Fish don’t understand whether they’re swimming in a safe reserve or not,” says Gustavo Manrique, Ecuador’s minister of the environment. The new Hermandad reserve — a vast area, the size of Sri Lanka, extending north of the previous GMR 
— will create a migration corridor from the Galápagos to the Cocos Islands National Park in Costa Rica. All fishing will be banned in 50% of the reserve, with only Galapagueño fishermen allowed to operate in the other half, although longline fishing (which doesn’t discriminate between target fish and vulnerable species) is banned. Hermandad forms part of a groundbreaking multinational agreement with Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia, which have similar ocean reserves totalling 193,000sq miles, to expand the existing Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor. “The marine corridor between Ecuadorian and Costa Rican waters creates a safe migration for important endangered species,” say Gustavo Manrique. 

Sea turtle and reef fish off Darwin Island.

Photograph by Getty

“It’s a critical step in protecting some 3,000 marine Galápagos species, of which 20% are endemic.” Marine reserves also encourage sustainable fishing and tourism. 

“A shark’s net worth to our economy if it lives 20 years is $1.5m. But a dead one, $137 for meat. It creates business around ecological tourism,” says Manrique. Modern technology, he says, will make enforcement and monitoring easier and cheaper. “We can use drones, satellites 
and small, fast enforcement boats,” he explains. 

Ecuador is now using technology that can detect ‘dark vessels’ (ships with their tracking systems turned off). As for funding, The country is carrying out ‘debt for nature’ swaps, restructuring their national debts owed to donor nations in return for conservation investment. “We negotiate as a poor country, but the new global richness is biodiversity,” says Manrique.

Tourism’s role

It’s too early to access the impact of the new reserve. But María-José Barragán, science director at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, is certain it will be beneficial. “This corridor ensures species will be protected during migration to the Galápagos, which will contribute to the local economy through sustainable fishing and wildlife tourism”.

Ecuador’s minister for tourism, Niels Olsen, says his government has a vested interest in ensuring the reserve is a success. “Tourists will not come if they think we’re not working towards conserving and protecting the islands.”
When I visited, public opinion about the new reserve seemed positive on Santa Cruz Island, where much of the Galápagos’s 25,000-strong population lives, mainly in the town of Puerto Ayora. It’s a tourism hub of hotels, bars, restaurants and souvenir emporiums, where sea lions doze on public benches and pelicans harangue fishermen for scraps. 

“Our fish rotate between feeding grounds outside the reserve. Our fishermen were saying their catch was down when the Chinese boats were here,” says local merchant, Mercy Sancan. “Since their boats left, the fish seem more numerous.”

Marcia Garate, a local travel agent, also supports the creation of Hermandad. “The reserve is good for us because we don’t want to lose our grouper and tuna as animals such as sea lions need them. Tourists won’t come if we lose our wildlife.” 

And come, tourists do; a trip to these islands represents the wildlife experience of a lifetime. There are two ways to experience the archipelago: either on a cruise ship or as part of a day trip on a boat. Cruises typically range from five to 11 days and include a stop at Santa Cruz, with some focusing on the western islands, including Isabela, with its penguins and flightless cormorants. Others take in the eastern group, including San Cristobal, home to red-footed boobies. Longer voyages, meanwhile, will cover both areas. Cruises include twice-daily land excursions with snorkelling, while liveaboard cruise vessels focus on scuba diving. The budget-conscious can find accommodation on Santa Cruz and head out on boat day trips or island-hop.

Marine iguana and red rock crabs, Santa Cruz island.

Photograph by Getty

My experience at sea saw me spending six nights exploring the eastern islands on board Santa Cruz II, Hurtigruten’s debut Galápagos cruise, which uses a Metropolitan Touring vessel that hosts up to 90 guests. 

During shore visits with the ship’s naturalists, we encounter playful sea lions on the Mosquera sand bar and spend time with the land iguanas basking by cactus trees on tiny Santa Fé Island, the only place in the world these iguanas exist. Birding highlights are many: nesting colonies of frigate birds on North Seymour Island, the males with expanded, cherry-red crops, and a Nazca booby with fluffy, snowball-white chicks on Española Island. And sublime snorkelling experiences include the chance to swim for 20 minutes at a time with a giant Galápagos green turtles and whitetip reef sharks. On Santa Cruz, we visit a Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative to learn how the creature’s diversity across different islands informed Darwin’s theories on evolution. 

The responsibility to protect these hallowed shores can weigh heavy on visitors. But from the smallest actions and decisions, personal responsibility can count towards making the Galápagos a sustainable destination. “Every tourist must reflect on how to lower their carbon footprint,” says Gustavo Manrique. “Sure, you can eat salmon flown in from Chile, or instead choose local fish, like brujo [scorpion fish], fished in these waters, so money stays local.” 

Such simple actions as reusing a water bottle, avoiding single-use plastic and taking non-recyclable waste off the islands when departing should be part of the modern traveller’s toolkit. But what about the bigger picture? For example, how to mitigate air travel’s effect on the climate, which is critical to fragile ecosystems such as those in play on the Galápagos Islands. The reality is we probably need to fly less, yet tourism to the Galápagos is critical to funding its conservation. 

Metropolitan Touring is a carbon-neutral operator in the region.“Our core value is to take action against our carbon footprint and finance conservation,” says Carolina Proaño-Castro, executive director of Fundación Futuro, the nonprofit organisation that’s helped Metropolitan Touring work towards becoming carbon neutral. All aspects of its Galápagos cruises are examined for carbon efficiency, from using anti-corrosive paint to deter crustacean build-up on ships, thus improving fuel efficiency, to giving guests reusable metal water bottles.

Guests pay a levy calculated at $16 (£13) per tonne of carbon, which funds a tangible conservation initiative: the conservation of a 6,670-acre reserve at Mashpi Lodge in Ecuador’s Chocó-Andino cloud forest area. The levy is also being used to help establish a biological corridor in the Chocó-Andino by buying up more forest to conserve, enabling landowners to follow more sustainable practices.

“Just as Galápagos sharks need a migration corridor to avoid being fished, connectivity is the key to climate change adaptivity all over the world,” says Proaño-Castro.

Five to try: Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)

1. Ross Sea Region
The world’s largest MPA borders Antarctica, spanning 618,000sq miles. It administers ‘no-take’ and sustainable fishing zones and is home to 30% of the world’s Adélie penguins and a third of its Antarctic petrels.

2. Pitcairn Islands
Covering a colossal 322,000sq miles, the Pitcairn Islands MPA extends south east from the Pitcairn Islands. The 47 inhabitants of the only inhabited island, Pitcairn, are descendants of the mutinous HMS Bounty crew. Commercial activities are forbidden in its waters, home to sharks and cetaceans.

3. Ascension Island
Right out in the mid-Atlantic, this MPA surrounds the giant undersea volcano of Ascension Island, a 172,000sq-mile home for marlin and significant green turtle populations.  

4. South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
Spanning 479,000sq miles of sub-Antarctic waters, this MPA supports blue whales and penguins; fishing is outlawed in a quarter of its waters.

5. Papahānaumokuākea
Home to coral atolls that protect endemics including Hawaiian monk seals, this 579,000sq-mile reserve in the North Pacific also hosts key native cultural sites.

How to do it

Hurtigruten Expeditions has an 11-day expedition cruise to the Galápagos Islands on a full-board basis. It includes three nights at Casa Gangotena hotel in Quito, all transfers and flights, a cultural tour of Quito and a nature tour of Cotopaxi National Park, from £7,595 per person, based on two sharing.

More information

A double room at Mashpi Lodge, a cloud forest hotel in mainland Ecuador costs from £1,074 per night, including shared transfers and all meals, guided activities and excursions within the reserve.

Published in the September 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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