Galapagos Field Report
Sharks Under Attack in the Galapagos
Dylan Walker reports that the problems faced by sharks in the Galapagos may have been overlooked - until now
Darwin's Finches, Giant Tortoises and Land Iguanas are amongst the most famous animals of the Galapagos. All are incredibly tame, fascinating animals that have suffered at the hands of mankind and have therefore become the focus of conservation efforts on the islands.
But there is much more to Galapagos than the 13 mounds of volcanic rock emerging from the Eastern Tropical Pacific 960km west of Ecuador. There is another Eden beyond the paradise beaches; a place that is talked about by divers as one of the "Seven Underwater Wonders of the World". This place, referred to strategically as the Galapagos Marine Reserve, is every bit as inspiring as the land that inspired Darwin's evolutionary theories. All you have to do is put on a snorkel and mask and go for a swim to discover acrobatic Galapagos Sea Lions, torpedo-like Galapagos Penguins and bumbling Green Turtles. But if there is one animal that can sum up Galapagos's unique placing as a marine spectacle, it is not turtle, penguin, or sea lion, it is the shark!
The nutrient-rich waters surrounding the islands support an incredible diversity and abundance of sharks, from the world's biggest fish in the form of the Whale Shark, to the great schools of roaming Hammerheads, and, at the other extreme, the small, slender White-tipped Reef Shark, which is regularly encountered by snorkellers close to shore and may even be watched from the beach.
When I joined the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society team in the Galapagos with my partner, Lisa, to assist in a new and exciting shark education initiative, I imagined that the project would add to the substantial previous literature and conservation efforts completed or ongoing in the region. I was in for a shock!
Sea Shepherd Director Sean O'Hearn-Gimenez soon explained to me the real situation: "The sharks of Galapagos are declining dramatically at a time when insufficient research has been completed to quantify how many sharks there are, and the likely rate of decline. We know from local dive-masters that at many sites, only about half the number of sharks present a decade ago are seen today, but shark research is often difficult and expensive, and this has limited scientists to conducting just a handful of studies."
The major reason for this dramatic decline in shark populations, not just in Galapagos, but worldwide, can be summed up in just three words - Sharks Fin Soup. This meal would be tasteless but for the addition of flavourings such as chicken, but that is besides the point. It is seen as a symbol of wealth and status in the Asian countries where it is popular, with fins reaching sufficiently high prices to justify a global fishery. Although banned in Ecuador and within the Galapagos Marine Reserve, both Ecuadorian and foreign fishermen are regularly entering Galapagos waters to cut the fins from sharks in one of the most wasteful fishing practices of all.
"Despite donating a patrol boat to the Galapagos National Park to improve protection measures within the reserve," explained Sean, "we now realise that an alternative, longer-term community-based approach is also required in order to safeguard sharks and the livelihoods of the many people who make a living here from ecotourism."
This new approach aims to involve the people of Galapagos by raising awareness about the sharks living on their doorstep. Specifically, Sea Shepherd will focus on why sharks are such fascinating animals worrthy of our respect and admiration, and why they are worth so much more alive than dead.
To achieve this during the time that we were involved, Lisa embarked upon the design of a school education pack and field visit program, whilst I was given the task of project managing the production of a field guide to the sharks of the Galapagos Islands.
Back in the UK I work for an ethical conservation-supporting publisher called WILDGuides, so I was in my element with my new job. But the more I looked into the project, the more excited I became. We soon discovered that there was a lack of useful identification guides to the region, and with the number of dive tourists, it was clear that there was a need. But more importantly, we realised that we could use this guide as a tool to discover more about sharks in the Galapagos by encouraging readers to report their sightings back to us.
Working alongside Patricia Zarate or the Charles Darwin Research Station, we now plan to include a simple survey form with each guide which should help us to answer important questions on species diversity, abundance, behaviour and distribution. Not only will such information help us directly in our conservation efforts, it will also allow us to improve the quality and relevance of the educational material that we provide to schools and other user-groups.
During our three months with Sea Shepherd we worked with a fabulous team of people and made significant progress with both projects. Roughly half of the guide is now completed, with photographs and mapping data currently being sought. Successful funding permitting, we are hopeful of setting a publication date in 2007.
We had an incredible time in Galapagos, not only seeing first hand the unique and fragile ecosystems on land and in the water, but also, thanks to Sea Shepherd, contributing in some small way to their future preservation. A special thanks therefore goes to Sean, Hans, Michelle, Lenin, and Rosemary for welcoming us into the Sea Shepherd family. Keep up the good work guys!