The Pandemic Put Tourism to the Galápagos Islands on Pause. As a New Hope Spot, What’s In Store for a More Sustainable Future?
October 29, 2020
Featured image: Kip Evans
GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, EASTERN PACIFIC OCEAN (OCTOBER 29TH, 2020)
Tourism has been the main industry in the Galápagos Islands for the 25,000 people who live across the five inhabited islands. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the flow of tourists has stopped – along with many islanders’ source of income. Scientists and conservationists have long considered the protection of the Galápagos Islands to be in need of a second look thanks to recent studies that show complex migration patterns connecting sharks and other creatures of the Galápagos to Cocos, Malpelo and Coiba islands. During a time of global shut-down and rapid change, now may be time for momentum towards greater protection for not only the Galápagos Islands but of the entire Eastern Pacific Ocean.
Mission Blue has declared the Galápagos Islands a Hope Spot in recognition of Dr. Alex Hearn and Manuel Yepez Revelo’s work in sustainable tourism, marine conservation and animal migration research in the Galápagos Archipelago and Eastern Pacific Ocean. The Galápagos Islands Hope Spot has officially been distinguished from the Eastern Pacific Seascape Hope Spot.
Dr. Sylvia Earle, Founder of Mission Blue, said in a video shot during a Lindblad expedition to the Galápagos Islands, “I first came to the Galápagos as a scientist in 1966. It seems like a different world. It is in fact, a different world. Here in the Galápagos Islands, it’s a miracle that so much is still the way it likely was a thousand years ago. It’s an encouraging message I have to give about what has happened here because it’s evidence that people care and have taken action to protect 97% of the land. This is a work in progress. We’re seeing now an awareness that if you don’t take care of the ocean, the land is in trouble. This is true not only in the Galápagos Islands but globally. The ocean is the cornerstone of our life support system. We need to give back to nature, which has given us everything. It’s working here in the Galápagos and it can work on a much grander scale. It’s the best possible recipe for a long and enduring future for humankind.”
The global shut-down and subsequent travel restrictions due to COVID-19 have paused tourism to the Galápagos Islands. The original marine reserve plans established in the 1980s planned for about 25,000 annual tourists. Right before the pandemic, the islands were welcoming about 240,000 visitors – and now, zero. Dr. Hearn and Yepez Revelo believe that now may be the best time to push forward momentum in expanding marine protection of the Galápagos Islands and throughout the Eastern Pacific.
Plans are in the works to propose expanded protections for the Galápagos Islands and the surrounding waters in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Dr. Alex Hearn, Hope Spot Champion and Vice President of MigraMar, has worked for decades in tagging and tracking migratory sharks and their connectivity throughout the Eastern Pacific.
“Here in the Galápagos, we have placed satellite tags on hammerhead sharks and they have moved outside the reserve, and even to other reserves such as Cocos and Malpelo”, explains Dr. Hearn. “This is just one example proving that the animals’ migratory corridors provide connectivity throughout the entire Eastern Pacific.” He elaborates, “Conservation policies have treated the Galápagos as if it’s an isolated area. We now know that it isn’t. We must consider the larger picture.”
While the current marine reserve may have been successful in protecting coastal marine species, it is becoming increasingly apparent that those species which forage out in the open ocean, or which migrate along predictable pathways outside the reserve, such as sharks, turtles and seabirds, require increased protection.
“There are so many layers on which we need to work – locally with the Galápagos community to build a sustainable society in the islands, nationally with the fishing fleets operating in the exclusive economic zone around the reserve, regionally with foreign fleets operating in the high seas where they can be a threat towards the species we are trying to conserve, and globally to combat the threats of climate change,” explains Dr. Hearn.
Dr. Hearn’s relationship with this region began in 2002, when he joined the Charles Darwin Foundation at the Galápagos Islands, as Coordinator of Fisheries Research until 2008. He currently holds a faculty position at Universidad San Francisco de Quito, and carries out his research from the Galápagos Science Center, which is based on San Cristobal. As well as the Galápagos Marine Reserve, he has also worked at other sites within the region, including the following Mission Blue Hope Spots: Malpelo (Colombia), Cocos (Costa Rica) and Revillagigedo (Mexico) MPAs, and played a key role in the identification of the recent Galápagos-Cocos Swimway Hope Spot.
“We have to learn to adapt to living more sustainably”, Dr. Hearn says. “We’re causing damage that’s eating up Earth faster than the planet can replenish itself.”
Many families have been living on the five inhabited Galápagos Islands for 4 or more generations, including Carolina Larrea Angermeyer and her family. Larrea Angermeyer describes the changes she and her family have witnessed on the islands in recent years.
“As marine currents brought once the ancestors of unique species, they are now bringing plastic, and our impact is growing at unprecedented speed. Endangered species are part of the by-catch of longline fishing, and we’re seeing overfishing at the border of the Marine Reserve.”
She continues, “The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the problems that were already here; accumulated and not addressed properly. Sustainability is being put aside because of economic and societal collapse driven mostly by corruption, ignorance and greed. Each one of us can do our part to protect this magical place, even if we don’t live here or close to the ocean. The only time to act is right now.”
The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago of 17 major volcanic islands and over 100 islets in the Eastern Pacific ocean. The islands are known for their unique geology and variety of endemic species that gave life to scientist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, including the marine iguana, Galápagos penguin, and the blue-footed booby. Today, about 25,000 people live across 5 inhabited islands. In 1986, 27,000 sq miles of ocean surrounding the islands were declared a marine reserve, and since then the islands have been declared a World Heritage Site and biosphere reserve.
A bustling tourism and fishing industry has become a double-edged sword for the islands. With a flourishing economy has come plastic pollution – a mark of human destruction that has finally caught up with the islands after decades of seemingly untouched solitude. Manuel Yepez Revelo, Hope Spot Champion, Galápagos resident and Manager of Galápagos Sharksky Travel & Conservation explains, “Something very scary is happening here. Trash is leaving the fishing fleets and coming to the islands. It washes up on the coast and you can see animals playing or eating plastics.”
Yepez Revelo continues, “If we can turn a new leaf here on the islands and prioritize conservation, we can create more jobs and preserve these precious islands at the same time.” He elaborates, “Every year, 500 kids graduate and only have tourism to pursue; there’s an employment problem. We need to get the islands moving forward – but in a sustainable way.” Revelo used to be a fisherman and upon witnessing the damage fishing has on the environment, he transformed into an avid marine conservationist.
Angermeyer adds, “Each one of us can do our part to protect this magical place, even if we don’t live here or close to the ocean. Life begins and ends in the ocean.”
“I believe with change, the Galápagos can become a model of how an island community can preserve its natural heritage and be an example of sustainable living in the face of climate change”, explains Dr. Hearn. He continues, “If we can get it right in the Galápagos, we can get it right for the rest of the ocean and planet.”
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MigraMar was created in 2006 as a network of research and conservation institutions that work together to understand the dynamics of marine migratory species in the Eastern Pacific. The mission of MigraMar is to “research and provide the necessary technical assistance for the conservation of marine migratory species of the Eastern Pacific” and its vision is “to provide migratory marine species of the Eastern Pacific with a threat-free environment that guarantees the health of its populations over time. ” MigraMar is made up of researchers belonging to universities, government agencies and non-profit organizations distributed across the American continent.
Universidad San Francisco is a liberal arts university based in Quito, Ecuador and with a campus on San Cristobal, in the Galápagos Islands. USFQ seeks to train freethinking, innovative, creative, enterprising individuals within the framework of Liberal Arts and under its founding principles. USFQ seeks to be a university of excellence in all its activities and unique in the world given its capabilities within the philosophy of Liberal Arts and its founding principles.
About Galápagos Sharksky Travel & Conservation
Galápagos Sharksky T.C is a Travel Company who support different conservation projects and social groups in our town, our main philosophy is work side by side with conservation and generating local economy, raising awareness to the local people and people who decide travel to Galápagos that we should keep the balance between humans and nature.