The government of Ecuador today announced the creation of a more than 15,000-square-mile (40,000-square-kilometer) marine sanctuary around two of the northern Galápagos islands, Darwin and Wolf. In addition, several smaller no-take areas have been created throughout the volcanic archipelago in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America. This move fully protects roughly one-third of the waters around the Galápagos from fishing and other extractive industries. An Ecuadorian province, the Galápagos Islands are home to the world’s largest biomass of sharks and are a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The National Geographic Society conducted a Pristine Seas expedition in the Galápagos Marine Reserve in December 2015. Led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala, the Pristine Seas team of international scientists and filmmakers, in collaboration with the Galápagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Research Station, surveyed and documented the waters around the islands, with a focus on the deep and offshore environments. The expedition was made possible in part by a grant from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.
On February 12, 2016, Sala met with Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa to discuss the important findings from the December expedition and the need for stronger conservation measures. Upon creation of the sanctuary, President Correa said, “The Galápagos Islands have extraordinary ecological value and also economic value. The government of Ecuador supports the creation of a marine sanctuary to leave an inheritance to our children and our children’s children; a wonderful world where as many species as possible are preserved for the enjoyment and knowledge of future generations.”
Ninety-seven percent of the Galápagos Islands’ landmass is currently protected as a national park. Prior to today’s announcement, however, less than 1 percent of the marine reserve surrounding the islands was fully protected from fishing. As a result, the number of sharks, groupers and sea cucumbers in the area has declined over time. The new marine sanctuary will protect the largest biomass of sharks in the ocean, most notably migratory hammerheads and reef sharks.
According to Pelayo Salinas de Leon, senior marine scientist with the Charles Darwin Foundation: “The first time I dove in the waters around Darwin and Wolf islands, I could not believe how many sharks were there. This area is truly a jewel in the crown of the Galápagos Islands World Heritage site.”
Currently, marine-based tourism supports more than one-third of all jobs in the Galápagos Islands, bringing nearly US$178 million per year to the local economy. A recent economic study by the National Geographic Society and the University of California Santa Barbara calculated that the tourism value of a shark over its lifetime in the Galápagos is US$5.4 million, while a dead shark brings fishermen less than US$200.
“By creating this sanctuary, Ecuador has saved one of the planet’s most precious natural treasures while preserving an important economic engine for the country,” said Sala.
A hotspot of biodiversity on land and at sea, the Galápagos Islands harbor more than 2,900 known species of fish, invertebrates and marine mammals in addition to endemic seabirds and the world’s only marine iguana. Of these species, 57 are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. The unique wildlife on the islands evolved in isolation from mainland South America, inspiring Charles Darwin to develop his theory of evolution through natural selection after his 1835 visit.