Smelly Fishy Business in the Galapagos

Things are not going very well in the Galapagos lately. Recently Raquel Molina, one of the best National Park Directors ever appointed was fired. Apparently she took her job seriously and was trying to actually do something about poaching and other illegal activities in this World Heritage site.

Every year some 300,000 sharks are illegally poached in the Galapagos Islands
National Park Marine Reserve. Since 2000, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been working with the Galapagos National Park and the Ecuadorian National Environmental Police to try and control poaching in the Marine Reserve. It has been a very frustrating task.

The activities of the last week illustrate one of the problems that keeps recurring. On Monday, May 5th the Head of the Navy for the Galapagos, Commander Ayala released a shark poaching vessel that was arrested on April 27th. This boat was caught inside the Marine Reserve with between 140 and 290 sharks plus shark fins onboard.

The Navy said the vessel was released because the fish were beginning to smell. However there seems to be a stronger stench in the Enchanted Islands and it is not coming from the fish.

During the last eight years that Sea Shepherd has worked with the National Park we have seen the dedicated work of rangers and the environmental police constantly thwarted by the actions of the Navy. In the Galapagos the Navy has total control over the movements of all vessels and the rangers cannot patrol without permission of the Navy. The rangers must inform the Navy of where they will be patrolling.

Former National Park Director Raquel Molina was physically assaulted by naval sailors when she intervened against an illegal eco-tourism business operated by the Navy. "Coincidently" the poachers always seem to known where the rangers will be patrolling.

Anytime a Sea Shepherd ship has entered the Marine Reserve en route or departing from the Galapagos we always encounter poachers. And every time we confiscate longlines and free sharks, the Navy seems less than pleased.

Over the years, Sea Shepherd working with the Park rangers and the police have busted numerous shark finning and sea cucumber poaching operations.  Last year alone Sea Shepherd's efforts resulted in the confiscation of 45,000 shark fins and over 100,000 sea cucumbers and exposed the ringleaders of the shark fin mafia. The number of successful interceptions resulting in convictions by the Ecuadorian Navy has been zero.

On the island of Isabela, the Mayor of Vilimil has destroyed mangroves to build an "eco-tourist" landing dock and he dug up the sand on one beach for making cement. He destroyed a marine iguana nesting area when he used a bulldozer to level the beach for a carnival party. He was charged but the case went absolutely nowhere and the man is continuing to damage the eco-system in the name of eco-tourism.

A combination of over-population by both residents and tourists, the introduction of dogs and cats and other exotics, pollution, poaching and rampant corruption is threatening the survival of this profoundly unique eco-system.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society believes that if the world can't save the Galapagos then there is little hope for every other eco-system on this planet.

The Galapagos must be our line in the sand. We must fight the corruption that is perpetuating the steady diminishment of these incredible islands.

The facts on the poaching vessel Nano:

The Ecuadorian fishing vessel Nano out of the port of Manta was caught on Sunday, April 27th with 7 small boats in the water. The vessel was first spotted close to the island of Isabela at 92° 23' West and 00°32' South.  Some of the main vessel's tenders were well inside the Park boundaries. The vessel had long lines deployed in the water.

Onboard the Navy found numerous sharks. There are 3 reports from the Navy, National Park and the Environmental police and they all have different numbers. They report 140 sharks then 180 sharks then 290 sharks. The species were identified as Blue sharks, thresher sharks and other unidentified species. There were shark fins onboard but the number is unknown. There were 24 crew onboard or in the small boats.

The vessel was released from custody on May 5th, 2008. The reason for the release given by the Navy was that the fish was beginning to smell. The person who ordered the release is Commander Ayala the head of the Navy in the Galapagos. He ordered the ship to return to Manta under its own command.

During the time that the Nano was held, the Galapagos National Park rangers and the Environmental police were initially not allowed to board the vessel to inspect the sharks. Only after the Navy realized that the matter became public did they allow the other institutions to make their own inquiry.

The vessel had no Zarpe (clearance) and thus had no legal right to be in the waters of the Galapagos National Park. Their fishing license had expired on March 31st so technically they are not even allowed to leave the port of Manta.

Manta is the primary fishing port for Ecuador and the Manta courts routinely drop charges against fishing vessels charged with illegal fishing.

So what we have here is a longliner caught red-handed with long lines in the waters of a protected marine reserve inside a national park and a world heritage site with hundreds of dead sharks and shark fins onboard, operating without a license and without a clearance and the Navy lets them go.

The Situation is Getting More and More Serious

What we have is one of the best director of the National Parks ever - the respected and dedicated Raquel Molina who was incorruptible and highly effective - being fired for reasons unknown.

What we have here is a politician, the mayor of Vilamil destroying mangroves swamps and marine iguana nesting sites for eco-tourism development. He was charged and then nothing happened and he's back to destroying the local eco-system to make room for more eco-tourists. Meanwhile the man who collected the video evidence and turned it over to the authorities has been evicted from his small shop by the Navy.

What we have here are fishermen bringing in dogs and cats in violation of the Special Law for the Galapagos. Dogs and cats are prohibited in the Galapagos yet Sea Shepherd working with Animal Balance has overseen the spaying and neutering of thousands of the animals - but they keep coming and they are killing birds, marine and land iguanas, and seals. The fishermen do whatever the fishermen want to do.

The government of Ecuador has a severe case of homopechephobia - a political fear of fishermen.

Illegal residents of the Galapagos keep pouring in with a few token deportations. More and more eco-tourists means more cars, more hotels, more restaurants, more farming, more imports and more land lost to indigenous species. New exotic insects keep arriving with imports of food from the mainland. There are more oil spills and more fish are being caught by local fishermen to feed the tourists.

And of course we have the number one reason for diminishment of species and habitat in the Galapagos and that is the incredible corruption of the Ecuadorian Navy and their inability to control poaching and to protect the integrity of the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

These islands are doomed unless the government of Ecuador removes the Navy as the primary enforcement body and gives authority to the Ecuadorian National Environmental Police and the Galapagos National Park rangers.

The rangers should be armed and should be given authority to uphold the Special Law for the Galapagos. All dogs and cats and other exotics should be removed from the islands, a quota on tourism should be enforced, and fishing activities strictly enforced. All illegals should be deported and all imports strictly inspected for exotics and all exports strictly inspected for contraband sea cucumbers and shark fins.

If we lose the Galapagos we lose this planet.


Photos of the Nano

All photos credit: Diego Aazco, Gamavision film

The main vessel plus the 7 tenders

Inside the hold of the Nano of a shark

Illegally caught marlin on the deck of the Nano

One of the 7 small tenders of the Nano

Two of the tenders of the Nano

Dead tuna and long line floats in one of the tenders