On any given day we estimate that anywhere between 10 and 100 miles of longline are set inside the Galapagos Marine Reserve. A longline is a fishing line usually made of monofilament. In the Galapagos the length of the line generally ranges between 1 and 10 miles. Styrofoam buoys or plastic floats are attached to the lines. Every hundred feet, there is a secondary line attached extending down about 15 to 50 feet. This secondary line is hooked and baited with squid, fish, rays, or in cases we have discovered, with fresh dolphin meat. Albatross can see the baited hooks from the air and when
they dive on the hooks, they are caught and they drown. Other forms of marine wildlife see the bait from the waters below and get hooked when they try to eat the bait. The lines are set adrift from vessels for a period of 12 to 24 hours. Most of these hooks are being used to target sharks, tuna, and marlin. Longlines are the most significant factor in the rapid diminishment of shark populations in the oceans. The sharks targeted are caught mostly for their fins (which account for only 4% of their body weight) and also for their cartilage, liver oil, and teeth. The longline fishermen remove the fins and toss the still living shark back into the sea to die an agonizing death. Unable to swim, they slowly sink towards the bottom where other fish eat them alive. If longlines are not abolished, the oceans will lose most species of sharks within the next decade.
The Galapagos National Park Service (GNPS) is controlling the area but only have a very small fleet at their disposal. Therefore they cannot possibly control and stop the poaching. Besides that the actual penalties are incredibly low making the risk of being caught very acceptable. Sea Shepherd is helping in many ways by donating boats, hiring qualified crew, and by constantly developing new projects aimed to tackle the problem from other angles.
Some of the hotspots for poaching are to the north of the archipelago where mostly Costa Rican longliners fish for sharks; south of the Archipelago exists an extensive illegal shark finning operation and to the east as well as the west where many illegal fishermen from the mainland take their chances on tuna, marlin, and sharks.
Most of the longlining takes place at night and by daybreak the non-local poachers normally move outside the 40-mile Park limit to avoid being caught. If they do get caught they often get away with having to pay nothing but a nominal fee. This unfortunately comes from a lack of judicial force in the Galapagos, caused by legislation that needs to be reformed. Sea Shepherd Galapagos is presently working with a strong legal team to address this problem and approach these cases from a criminal standpoint. In general, criminal penalties are more severe than the administrative fees that are presently being charged and will act much more as a deterrent to possible poachers.
Next to longlining there is a large number of commercial purse seiners operating the waters around the Galapagos Marine Reserve. On an alarmingly high number of occasions they enter the National Park claiming to have mechanical or medical emergencies. The law of the sea states that any vessel in distress is given 72 hours to address such problems and this allows the commercial tuna boats to enter the Park unhindered. Some of the vessels have been seen twice in one year, making their emergencies highly suspicious.
Local fishermen also find tuna tracking device belonging to vessels from most South and Central American countries inside the Marine Reserve. Several hundreds of these high-end devices are picked up every year. The sheer number of devices found indicates a high probability that illegal tuna fishing is taking place inside the Marine Reserve.
Ghost lines also are a major threat. These are lines that were somehow set adrift from the vessel which laid them. They become tangled messes and capture many types of marine life who innocently try to swim by or through them.
Other forms of poaching
Sea cucumbers - Their numbers have been decimated but still many of the poachers are active in this trade. To find sea cucumbers, people have to go to remote areas and dive to dangerous depts. Sea cucumbers are being sold to the Asian market and are being used in Chinese medicine. It is also still considered a delicacy in Asia.
Sea horses - Again, Asian demand is calling for these animals to be slaughtered. They are both considered to be an aphrodisiac, whereas dried sea horses also find there way to wildlife collectors. Sea horses are considered endangered and any catch is strictly prohibited.
Sea lion penises - For the sea lion penises often the larger males are selected. Taking the larger, dominant males out of the small populations will risk lowering the quality of the gene pool of such a group. This then results in lowering the chances of survival of such a group, as the offspring will become less strong and more likely to be targeted by predators such as sharks and orcas.