César Peñaherrera has spent the past decade tagging megafauna and studying population dynamics and ecosystems, trying to understand and quantify the benefits of marine protected areas.
Tuna fisheries — the major local fishery — outside protected areas have improved their catches in the whole of Ecuador with the creation of the Galapagos MPA.
For sharks, the results have been more mixed. “The MPA works for species that aggregate locally, but not ones that migrate outside” — notably the hammerheads, Peñaherrera explains. As in Cocos and Malpelo, hammerheads are the worst impacted of the megafauna, Peñaherrera says. “Their numbers have halved — they are not doing great. They move away from the MPA and can be fished elsewhere.”
Peñaherrera, the academic director of Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador who leads biological data collection and analysis at Migramar, believes that Galapagos’ larger number of islands helps protect aggregation sites compared to Cocos’ MPA. (Cocos’ system of seamounts would also need to be covered to provide that same level of protection.)
Peñaherrera is building a foundation of scientific data to help governments make informed decisions on building larger MPAS. In general, the industrial-fishing fleets in Ecuador understand that MPAS will boost their business longterm and allow fish populations to grow. But smaller, artisanal fishing operations live day to day, and don’t necessarily take a big-picture view.
Peñaherrera says that fisheries are still by far the greatest threat to the marine megafauna of the region. For years it’s been known to the diving community that fishing vessels wait for nightfall at the edge of the Galapagos Marine Reserve’s 40-mile boundary. When patrols or visiting liveaboards are out of the area, they move in. Fishing vessels — either illegally or with the compliance of authorities and fisheries patrol agencies — are longlining through national parks and other protected areas, and hitting the famous shark schools hard.
With large MPAS, Peñaherrera expects a certain amount of
illegal fishing will persist. But as destructive as fishing can be to Galapagos’ megafauna, there might be worse to come.
Peñaherrera and Migramar have tracked turtles and other animals heading farther west and north from the islands, following jellyfish aggregations and finding themselves in the great Pacific garbage patch. Plastic clogging the stomachs of megafauna is one thing; microplastics is a more insidious and larger problem, working its way in through the bottom of the food web. “It’s a huge issue, and in the midterm, it’s going to be the largest threat,” Peñaherrera says.
Like Bessudo in Malpelo and Arauz in Cocos, Peñaherrera is a believer in dive tourism as a strong support for conservation in the Triangle. It’s a revenue-producing alternative to fishing, and the economic gains from dive tourism last longer. The pressure to fish, though, comes back again and again — the battle today is for exposure and awareness, and it’s not won yet.
Researchers believe the Galapagos’ MPA offers better protection to megafauna such as whale sharks because of its larger size; hammerhead sharks are not faring well in any of the Golden Triangle’s protected areas.