Scuba Diving - - GEAR BAG -

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.

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