Successful conservation of sharks in the Galapagos lures thousands of tourists for an evening of sharks, ice-cream and education. Shark-diving tourism generates millions of U.S. dollars for the local economy, making a shark in Galapagos the most valuable on the planet.
Chondrichthyes (sharks, rays and chimaeras) are among the most Threatened group of species on the planet (footnote 1). Since the end of World War II, we humans got too good at fishing and have managed to remove 9 of 10 sharks and other large predatory fishes from the global oceans (2). Only few isolated and/or well-protected places still maintain healthy shark populations, and the Galapagos Islands rank as the sharkiest place in the galaxy (3).
Because sharks have been totally protected from fishing by the Galapagos Marine Reserve for over 15 years, healthy populations thrive around this volcanic archipelago. Shark-diving tourism generates millions of dollars for the local economy. It is estimated that each live shark in Galapagos is worth U.S. $360.000 annually (4).
Most visitors believe that to have a shark encounter you need to embark on a multi-day live-aboard mission around the archipelago. However, what most people ignore, even many local residents, is that right on the doorstep of Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the archipelago, anyone can have a close shark encounter.
Blacktip sharks (Carcharhinus limbatus) are coastal sharks commonly encountered around the archipelago. During the first months of the year, and after a 11-12 month gestation period, females give birth to 4-6 half-meter-long pups. Freshly arrived to a hostile world where larger sharks (even members of the same species!) or Galapagos sea lions are trying to have them for lunch, baby blacktips quickly learn to seek shelter. And what better place to hide that an intricate system of roots in shallow water with plenty of baby shark food available?
The Galapagos is also one of the few places on the planet where mangroves, coastal plants that have evolved to tolerate salt water, grow directly on lava. Galapagos mangroves are productive oases of life on an otherwise barren lava desert. Mangroves’ root system, evolved through time to capture sediment and maximize oxygen intake, creates an intricate habitat that serves as substrate for rich invertebrate communities to thrive, and as an essential kindergarten for baby fish. Baby blacktip sharks spend their first year of life in this sheltered environment, a perfect practice ground for their hunting skills, something key for their adult lives as fearsome top reef predators.
And right on the doorstep of Puerto Ayora, in Academy Bay, hundreds of baby blacktip sharks patrol this large mangrove forest on a daily basis, providing an excellent opportunity for a close encounter while snorkeling in less than a meter of water.
”Interacting with sharks is the best therapy to confront any unfounded fear towards sharks. These gentle creatures are not only essential for ecosystems, but they also bring millions of dollars to the local economy,” says Daniela Vilema, Charles Darwin Foundation VP of Education and Outreach.
If you are afraid to get your feet wet, in the evenings the lights of Puerto Ayora’s passengers’ wharf lure baitfish that in turn attract dozens of baby blacktips, creating a unique experience. Where else on the planet can you witness a miniature feeding frenzy while enjoying an artisanal ice-cream?
Dr. Pelayo Salinas-de-León: A marine ecologist with a keen interest in Marine Protected Areas, sharks’ ecology and the communication of science, Pelayo serves as National Geographic Pristine Seas Conservation Scientist and as senior marine ecologist with the Charles Darwin Foundation. His research and conservation efforts around Darwin and Wolf Islands in the north of the Galapagos were pivotal in inspiring the Ecuadorian government to create in 2016 a 40,000 square-kilometer [15,000 square miles, about the size of Switzerland] no-take marine sanctuary.
While on expedition with Pristine Seas, Pelayo uses remote camera systems to quantify large predatory fishes and shark diversity and abundance. He is based in the Galapagos islands, where he conducts applied research to inform sustainable artisanal fisheries management and to understand the ecology of highly migratory shark species in the Tropical Eastern Pacific.
References for this post
- Dulvy, N. K. et al. Extinction risk and conservation of the world’s sharks and rays. Elife 3, e00590 (2014).
- Myers, R. A. & Worm, B. Rapid worldwide depletion of predatory fish communities. Nature 423, 280–283 (2003).
- Salinas-de-León, P. et al. Largest global shark biomass found in the northern Galapagos Islands of Darwin and Wolf. PeerJ 4:e1911 (2016).
- Lynham, J., Costello, C., Gaines, S. D. & Sala, E. Economic valuation of marine and shark-based tourisms in the Galápagos Islands. Report National Geographic Pristine Seas. 46pp. (2015).