From Galapagos to the World: Towards the Recovery of Marine Ecosystems

Marine biodiversity disappears constantly due to overexploitation. Ecuador has expanded the Galapagos Marine Reserve in order to protect its treasures under the sea. Is this enough? What is happening with industrial fishing and overfishing around the world? The key to these questions lies on the sustainable management of marine biological resources.

Apart from much welcomed, the news came as necessary too. On January 14, 2022, the Galapagos Marine Reserve was expanded from 133,000 to 193,000 square kilometers. The area encompasses fragile ecosystems, migratory routes and feeding spots of endangered marine species that travel the waters of Ecuador, Colombia, Panama and Islas Cocos (Costa Rica). The promise of this expansion was made in the context of the UN Climate Change Conference 2021 (COP26) in Glasgow, United Kingdom1. However, what was the urgency of this action?

Without a doubt, one of the main drivers for this decision have been the challenges that this protected area faces against overfishing and illegal fishing. In April 2020, 26 tons of shark fins were confiscated in Hong Kong, all of them coming from Ecuador. Most of the seized species travel from Galapagos to the coasts of neighboring countries2. In 2017, a reefer ship of Chinese origin was detained in the marine reserve and 6,000 frozen sharks were found3. These are only but a few examples of an extended practice all over the world. Currently, 55 per cent of the oceans are fished industrially and the impacts vary from decrease in resources, bycatch of endangered species and high CO2 emissions from the vessels used for these activities 4. But, how did we get to this point?

Overfishing is nothing new. Since the 1970s, fishermen have reported less catch in different international waters. These events promoted the creation of the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), which are areas where foreign vessels are prohibited to fish. These restrictions have forced industrialized nations, in particular, to keep statistics up to date and inform of the conditions of marine life in their specific EEZ. And with the preservation of marine ecosystems, the exchange of products originating from aquaculture and fisheries prospers, a sector that is worth USD 401 billion dollars (2018) and provides a livelihood for 10 per cent of the global population5. Furthermore, 95 per cent of all catch comes from an EEZ, which makes fishery management a matter of supervision of each individual state. In the following link (p.85) , you will find the different approaches of fishery management and how they can reduce or prevent overfishing6.

And these practices are framed within a wider context. Blue bioeconomy presents itself as an alternative that would allow the preservation of marine resources, as well as food for 3.3 billion people who obtain a fifth of their animal protein intake from aquatic sources7. According to the European Market Observatory for Fisheries and Aquaculture (EUMOFA)8:

…blue bioeconomy incorporates any economic activity associated with the use of renewable aquatic biological resources to make products. Examples of these wide-ranging products include novel foods and food additives, animal feeds, nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, materials (e.g. clothes and construction materials) and energy.

EUMOFA, 2020

Accompanied by an ecosystem and fishery management approaches, these marine resources regenerate through time. An example of this is the menhaden, which was almost fished to extinction in the Atlantic coast of North America. As quotas and thorough monitoring were introduced in 2012, the population of this fish started to grow again. This meant feed for the larger predators like dolphins, and also highly valued fish like tuna, striped bass and bluefish could prey on it once more. Moreover, the menhaden is used as bait for lobster, and it has even brought benefit to the tourism industry since humpback whales follow the menhaden to the port of New York9. Results such as this have strengthened the ecosystem approach of fishery management, which apart from taking into account the size of stocks, it includes the “health, productivity and resilience of an entire ecosystem10”.

The expansion of the Galapagos Marine Reserve is much welcomed news and it makes sense in the effort to preserve fauna so unique in the world like this one from evident threats such as overfishing and illegal fishing. Nevertheless, the commitment goes far beyond this geographic area and it must reach all the seas and oceans, which are a true sustenance of land life. As shown by marine ecosystems, if disrupted, the entire chain of life destabilizes. These scenarios have led us to reconsider the management of aquatic resources, assess them comprehensively and make the most of them sustainably, while adapting practices to local realities.

1 El Comercio. 2021. Se oficializó la ampliación de la reserva marina Galápagos. Access on 02/16/2022
2 InSight Crime. 2021. Decomiso de aletas de tiburón por un millón de dólares termina en multa irrisoria en Ecuador.,en%20US%242%2C2%20millones. Access on 02/20/2022
3 World of Ocean Review. 2021. The Ocean, Guarantor of Life – Sustainable Use, Effective Protection. p.97
4 National Geographic. 2018. Industrial Fishing Occupies a Third of the Planet. Access on 02/18/2022
5 Ibid. World of Ocean Review. 2021. p.82
6 Ibid. World of Ocean Review. 2021. p.86
7 Ibid. World of Ocean Review. 2021. p.74
8 EUMOFA. 2020. Blue Bioeconomy Report. p.viii
9 Ibid. World of Ocean Review. 2021. p.90-92
10 Ibid. World of Ocean Review. 2021. p.91