PUERTO AYORA, Ecuador, Feb 10 (Reuters) – Despite living in protected waters around the Galapagos Islands, fisherman Pedro Asensio has doubts about an expanded marine reserve created last month by his country’s government.
“Why? If, really, they can’t even protect the first one,” said Asensio, 48, sitting on a bench near the fish market in Puerto Ayora.
Born in the municipal capital of 15,000 people on the island of Santa Cruz in the Galapagos, Asensio is one of 460 fishermen who ply their trade within the 40 nautical miles that make up the first reserve in the Galapagos.
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Only small-scale manual fishing by Galapagos residents is allowed in the first reserve, which was established in 1998 and measures 138,000 square kilometers.
The additional 60,000 square kilometers (23,170 square miles) added last month is the first step in a plan by Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama to create a migration corridor between protected areas for species threatened by climate change and industrial fishing.
Fishing is prohibited outright in half of the new reserve, while in the other half multiple hook lines, locally known as longlining, are prohibited, although anglers are allowed to use techniques manual skills like scuba diving to catch lobster.
Conservationists say the expanded reserve will help protect critically endangered species including hammerhead sharks, whale sharks and turtles.
But locals say law enforcement is wrongly focusing on them and not the commercial vessels – including a fleet of 300 vessels from China – which anchor in international waters near the islands.
“At the 40-mile mark, we encountered boats from all countries entering – even Ecuadorian (commercial) boats,” Asensio said.
“We leave this bay and the navy falls on us to ask us for papers,” says Mateo Gil, 28.
The campaign for an expanded reserve began after the 2017 seizure of the Chinese vessel Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, which was carrying 300 tonnes of illegal fishing loot, including endangered hammerhead sharks.
The ship’s owners were fined $6.1 million and the captain and crew were sentenced to up to three years in prison.
Galapagos residents and scientists have joined forces through the Mas Galapagos group, calling for stricter protection of marine species and limitations on fishing in the 200-mile sovereign water zone around the islands.
“The (previous) marine reserve was very effective in protecting coastal species, mainly. Species that were on the verge of extinction, such as giant tortoises, were saved,” said Mas Galapagos biologist Eliecer Cruz. But protecting migratory species is also key, he said.
Illegal and unsustainable fishing practices are, along with climate change, the main threat to the marine reserve, according to Mas Galapagos studies.
Between 2018 and 2020, 136 unauthorized Ecuadorian industrial fishing vessels were intercepted in the reserve, according to figures from Galapagos National Park.
BUOYS AND NETS
And foreign vessels also continue to be involved in potential illegal practices.
In 2020, Ecuador’s then defense minister said half of a mostly Chinese-flagged fleet of some 342 vessels stationed near the exclusive economic zone had disabled their tracking systems, making tracking impossible and prompting former President Lenin Moreno to warn the Chinese government. that Ecuador would assert its maritime rights.
So-called “nanny” ships float just outside the reserve, sending smaller and largely undetectable boats into restricted waters, biologist Cruz said.
Other tactics – including the use of buoys with large underwater nets attached – can prove deadly for endangered species.
“All of this could be solved with fishing regulations that require all vessels to be equipped with an electronic tracking device or a satellite,” Cruz said.
When Galapagos fishermen find the buoys with net, called “plantados”, they sell them for up to $30.
“They are taking our resources,” said 28-year-old Eddy Fabricio Asensio, who is Pedro Asensio’s nephew.
Eddy had just returned from a 10 day trip to Marchena Island.
“Ten years ago you would find good fishing nearby. Now you have to navigate more.”
The Ecuadorian government has expressed confidence in the existing satellite infrastructure.
“The ‘plantados’ are a legal fishing method. They may pass through our areas and then go elsewhere. We cannot control this, but when we detect it we have to go out and confiscate them,” said the Minister of the Environment. Gustave Manrique.
No foreign vessel has entered Ecuadorian waters for illegal fishing in nine months, Manrique said in mid-January at the inauguration of the expanded reserve.
The four countries concerned by the new corridor met the British Minister for the Environment at the end of January, who announced a contribution of 2 million pounds to support the reserve.
The enforcement challenges are myriad, Puerto Ayora Navy Captain Carlos Vallejo said, not just for the reserve but beyond.
“It’s not 198,000 square kilometres, it’s 1.09 million square kilometers of maritime jurisdiction,” he said.
It takes two days for a boat from Santa Cruz Island to reach the edge of the Exclusive Economic Zone.
The navy has had no reports of unauthorized vessels in the 40-mile reserve area and its monitoring systems have not detected any industrial vessels in those waters, Vallejo said, although he said fishermen should report any industrial vessel they spot.
If such a vessel were detected, the crew would be arrested and handed over to legal and national park authorities, he said.
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Reporting by Anna Portella Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Lisa Shumaker
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