Course:CONS200/2021/Impacts of overfishing on the Galapagos marine ecosystem

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Map of the Galápagos Archipelago

The Galápagos Islands are located approximately 1,000 kilometres offshore of the South American continent in the country of Ecuador[1][2]. Composed of 19 large islands, Galápagos became a province of Ecuador in 1973[1]. However, Galápagos became first well-known due to Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution by natural selection, which was conducted on these remarkable islands in 1835[3]. Unlike other places in the world, the Galápagos has three oceanic currents that create a unique biodiversity: the South equatorial Current produced by the Panama Current from the North-east, the Peru/Humboldt Current from the south east, and the Equatorial Undercurrent (EUC)/Cromwell Current from the west, leading cold waters to the western part of the Archipelago[4]. Due to the fact of different temperature currents, the unique biodiversity produces high endemism in both terrestrial and marine ecosystems[5]. Although the archipelago are largely valued internationally, threats have been posed on the local biota, especially those of the marine ecosystems. Overfishing of species in the surrounding waters of the Galápagos has been a major issue since the early 1990s and continues on today[6].

Complexity of issue

The Galápagos Islands have had an acclaimed reputation of reverence for their remarkable abundance of marine life, diverse population of marine fauna species and exceptional endemism, all contributing to its worldwide value[7]. This perception of prospering life in the Galápagos Islands has begun to become less and less a reality as overfishing has caused a catastrophic decline of marine species over the last 40 years[8][9]. The issue of overfishing has brought a plethora of direct and indirect impacts, mainly the decreased abundance of marine life and ecosystem health, but also repercussions to the species diversity, local residents, eco-tourism and the fishing sector. Among the negatively affected, local residents of the archipelago, whom depend on fishing as a source of income, have especially fallen victim to the circumstances surrounding the overfishing[8].

This issue of overfishing in the Galápagos Islands has brought a complex web of negative impacts and negative trends that conservationists look to fix. This includes issues to the ecosystem health, species diversity, eco-tourism and the fishing sector, all while ecosystem degradation occurs at an alarmingly increasing rate [10]. Predominantly, the ecosystem has been experiencing a massive loss in health, through the altering of the trophic cascade of the Galápagos ecosystem; this cascade has experienced effects to biomass, bringing declines in species richness, and even threatened survival. The occurrence of overfishing over the last 40 years, has brought marine species to go into a catastrophic decline, leaving many slow-growing species, such as sea cucumbers and the bacalao, unable to recover as every year, overfishing takes place[11][7]. The slow-growers however, are not the only ones experiencing impacts. Of the marine life residing in the Galápagos islands, more than 2900 species have been identified and are currently being monitored, with an astonishing amount of over 500 endemic species, of which 17% of all marine species are included[12][13][14]. Of this marine fauna population, since 2006, 57 are considered threatened and have been included in the IUCN Red List[15]. Of this, 25 endemic species are included, including fish, molluscs, crustaceans, echinoderms, corals and macro-algae[16]. Of most substance and importance to the fisheries in the Galápagos islands, an endemic species Mycteroperca olfax, also known as bacalao, has experienced a severe amount of overfishing as approximately 80% have been fished every year, studies suggest[7]. Evidently, species with little ability to recover and reproduce from such severe overfishing are struggling to survive. With a vast and diverse population of marine fauna, exceptional endemism, extraordinary biomass and species richness, many of these valued species’ livelihood and survivability is at risk.

With a small population of around 30,000 and a main economic source of fishing, many local residents rely on fishing as their source of income[17]. Not only have local residents fished in this ecosystem, but the Galápagos Islands have also harboured lots of fishing activity from commercial and industrial fishers for years, and this portion of the fishing sector has only continued to grow, with a recent astronomical boost of the population by 325% between 1971 and 2001[7]. Recently, however the Special Law of Galápagos excluded industrial fishing from any activity within 40 nautical miles of the Galápagos Archipelago, leaving fishing activity for locals and commercial fishers.

The renowned world value of the Galápagos Islands comes from the ecosystems remarkable abundance of marine life, diverse population of marine fauna species, and exceptional endemism. It is these iconic values of the ecosystem that have brought it to be considered one of the most acclaimed ecosystems of the world, reeling in up to almost 200,00 tourists each year[14]. This mass amount of tourists travelling to the archipelago every year only serves to increase the amount of active fishers and furthering the amount of catch and decrease of species. The Ecuadorian President has even in recent years spoke to the rising numbers of tourists, claiming stricter measures need to be taken to limit these numbers. Unfortunately these high levels of tourists have brought harm to the untouched nature of the archipelago and ultimately played a part in the overfishing issue[18].

Not only have the anthropocentric aspects been a factor in the issue of overfishing, ultimately bringing decreased biomass and species richness, but even ecological factors must be considered. The Galápagos Archipelago has ever since its discovery, been victim to invasive species and as of 2017, a reported 1,579 invasive species have been intentionally or unintentionally introduced to the Galápagos ecosystem[19]. Invasive species can have great impact on the ecosystem of the Galápagos Islands, causing even worse declines in biomass while altering the trophic cascade present in the ecosystem by impacting food security and livelihood of species, especially those endemic to the Archipelago[19].

Impacted species

Overfishing and other natural disasters have caused fish to be the most threatened group among vertebrates around the world [20]. On the IUCN Red List, 45 of Galápagos marine species have found to be either vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered, all affected through overfishing[16]. The susceptibility of marine specie exploitation is based on extrinsic characteristics; for example, larger predatory fish have a higher vulnerability compared to herbivorous fish because of its size. [20] The overexploitation disrupts the ecosystem and food web[8]. The removal of predators and keystone species causes the ecosystem to readjust, overwhelming species to migrate, alter to new predators, and scavenge for new resources of food[20]. With difficulty or failure to adapt, mass populations are easily endangered or extinct [8]. The impacts of overfishing do not only affect the marine ecosystem but also humans and species on land. Fish meat is an essential nutrient as it supports nearly 20% of animal protein, feeding dogs, cats, and other mammals [20]. Yet, the importance of fish is viewed as food sources rather than part of nature, causing interdependencies between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems[20]. For fishing to work sustainability, the overexploited species will need to be able to recover to at least half of their fished biomass, or else the marine ecosystem will keep weakening and become unable to support and recover extinct species [8].

Picture of a lone Mycteroperca olfax (Bacalao) in the Galápagos Marine Reserve.

Case Study 1: Mycteroperca Olfax (Bacalao)

The Bacalao is endemic to the Eastern Tropical Pacific, only found in the Galápagos Islands, Coco Island (Costa Rica), and Malpelo Island (Columbia)[20][8]. The species has been viewed as luxury food and valuable due to its natural large body size[20]. Bacalaos were mainly caught between the months of December to May, but when local and tourism populations increased so did the priorities to maintain the catch[20]. Bacalaos have large keystone roles. In new ecosystem models, the loss of Bacalaos predict that the impact may trigger a downpour of cascade events and lowering tropic levels[20]. Studies found in the past 40.5 years, the population has declined at least 30% and further impacting at least 20% of other marine specie's biomass[8]. In particular, the loss of the Bacalao population has caused the anemones, zoanthids, and zooplankton to have the most impact to decreased biomass[8]. Sharks, reef predators, and chitons have also been affected to due the loss and difficulty to readapt in finding new food resources[20][8]. Modern technology has further continued to worsen the problem by allowing fisheries to track the species during non-spawning seasons[20]. Bacalaos are protogynous, exhibiting more female than male production[20]. In addition to their complex social behaviours, females and males segregate during non-mating seasons[20]. The impacts of fisheries cause the ratios between male and female sex to be unbalanced affecting the reproduction cycle[20]. Currently, on the IUCN Red List the Bacalao are only listed as 'vulnerable,' and in the Galápagos are only allowed to catch the fish through handline[21]. As large-scale fisheries are pressured to maintain feeding a population, illegal large-scale fishery are still in production[20]. With change in policies and governance, hopefully the bacalao population will slowly recover[21].

An Isostichopus fuscus (sea cucumber) crawling on a sea urchin.

Case Study 2: Isostichopus fuscus (Sea cucumber)

Generally, sea cucumber species are in high demand and overexploited because they are socially constructed as food delicacies and purposeful use to traditional Asian medicine[22]. Nine species of sea cucumbers are classified as vulnerable and seven as endangered on the IUCN Red List[23][22]. The Isostichopus fuscus is listed as endangered[23]. Isostichopus fuscus are mainly exploited in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, particularly the waters of Mexico, Panama, Peru and Ecuador[22]. Sea cucumbers play a significant role in the low food chain and in the marine ecosystem[24]. For example, sea cucumbers play a large role to keep coral reefs clean from organic matter by recycling nutrients[24]. Without sea cucumbers, sediment health, recycling of nutrients and seawater chemistry will diminish its roles affecting the biodiversity of species in the ocean[25]. They are significantly fragile due to their slow reproduction and maturity rate, therefore the combination of overexploitation and natural disasters are to be the largest predator to the specie[24]. Fishing Isostichopus fuscus increased after the year 1992 when mainland Ecuador restricted their laws on large-scale fishing and until the mid-2000s, the Galápagos Marine Reserve considered the specie as overexploited[22]. However, the Galápagos governance choose to keep economy a priority and has allowed fishery openings once a year if "1) [if there are more than] 40 sea cucumbers/100 m2 ; (2) That the catch per unit effort does not decrease for three consecutive years in three quarters of the macro-zones"[22]. In [22] study found that even with such considerations, the Isostichopus fuscus is still capable of being overexploited because the estimate of scale had been underestimated[26][22]. In addition, even with a 10 year no fishing plan, the population would just fall to list as vulnerable[22].

Past, current and future solutions

In 1959, the Galapágos National Park was established, which accounted for 97% of the terrestrial land of these Islands[27][1]. In response to the growing concerns and evidence-based research about the importance of preserving the abundant marine biodiversity from the fisheries industry, the planning process arose for the Galápagos Marine Reserve as early as 1973[28][29]. With the emergence of the National Galápagos Institute (INGALA) in 1980 and abundance of support from scientists, scholars, researchers, and 28 other institutes, the declaration of the Galápagos Marine Resource Reserve was announced in 1986, covering 70,000 kilometres squared of water around the Galápagos islands[28][1]. In 1990, the marine reserve was also announced as a Whale Sanctuary under the Fisheries Law by the province of Galápagos, protecting all whale species in the area[30].The Galápagos Special Law and Galápagos Marine Reserve Management Plan were also declared in 1998[31]. This strengthened the protection of the marine reserve by designating the reserve as a protected area, as well as extending the reserve’s limits even further to approximately 138,000 kilometres squared[31][32][33]. The Special Law of 1998 also allowed for greater citizen participation in decision making through a co-managment system[31].

In 2000, the first zoning plan for the marine reserve was established by the Participatory Management Board to further subside conflicts between human activity and the marine biodiversity[34]. However, this zoning scheme was not put in place until 2006. The system divided the area into three sections: “(1) multiple use zone, (2) limited use zone, and (3) port zone”[33]. Furthermore, the limited use zone was subdivided into four more sections: tourism, conservation, fishing, and “areas of special temporary management”[33]. The limited use zones were designated in areas that were less than 300 meters deep of sea water, while multiple use zones were in areas deeper than 300 meters of sea water[33].

The Galápagos Marine Reserve was included as a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 2001, while the terrestrial lands of Galápagos had been declared a World Heritage site in 1978[35]. Being marked as a World Heritage Site provided the marine ecosystem with additional legal protection and international recognition of being an extremely valuable place[36]. With the uncontrolled fisherman population increasing at a high rate, the Technical Committee of Fisheries was established to assist scientists with the creation of fishery resources and fisheries conservation goals in 2006[37]. As the number of individuals within certain populations continually fluctuates due to overfishing, the fisheries of different species repetitively opens and closes to protect the species from becoming extinct as well, with the first closure occurring in 2006[38].

In 2015 was the revisioning the Special Law of 1998, which resulted in the restriction of the co-management system by only allowing the Ministry of Environment and other related institutions to make the final decisions in relation to the Galápagos Marine Reserve[38]. This was done to create more efficient choices and results towards the Marine Reserve and Galápagos as a whole. With the official release in 2014 of the Management Plan for the Protected Areas of Galápagos for Good Living, Galápagos Marine Reserve managers began the planning of a new rezoning system to meet the plan's objectives towards biodiversity[38]. The result of this process was the establishment of the Wolf and Darwin Marine Sanctuary in 2016, which is a “no-take” zone that encompasses 40,000 kilometres squared of water along the north-side of the Galápagos Marine Reserve[38]. Also resulting from this process was the formation of the new rezoning system that divides the waters into four different categories than those created in 2000: 1) fully protected, 2) conservation, 3) sustainable use, and 4) zone of transition[38]. Incorporated in the conservation zone, which is meant for scientific research and low-impact tourism, are the new sanctuaries and other designated areas found scattered around the terrestrial and marine areas, occupying approximately one-third of the total water surrounding the Galápagos islands[39]. However, this new zoning strategy was not implemented until 2019[38].

Although it has declined over time due to the regulations, laws, and policies, illegal overfishing is still a major issue in the Galápagos today[40]. As for the future, models are being created that promote human-environment linked approaches to try to diminish overfishing in the Galápagos[41], while other models suggest further “maintaining and enforcing the marine protected area”, as well as creating more strict fishing regulations[42]. Research is also being conducted on the effectiveness of the current Galápagos Marine Reserve zoning system, which may produce recommendations and improvements for the future of the reserve[43]. A proposal for a potential future expansion plan of the Galápagos Marine Reserve has also been produced, which would extend three times greater than the current boundaries of the reserve, but it is yet unsure if the proposal will be made into a law[44]. However, it is not yet known as to what the next strategy or policy will exactly be in relation to the issue of overfishing in the Galápagos, as it depends on future species distribution, fisherman populations, and other external factors[45].

Different viewpoints of the issue

Overfishing in the Galápagos Islands has prompted conflicting viewpoints on the issue. From a conservation standpoint, overfishing is no doubt a serious problem that should be minimized. But from an economic perspective, overfishing has become an incredibly important source of income for the islands. These conflicting perspectives are acknowledged by both the Government of Ecuador and the local people on the islands.

Overfishing in the Galápagos has generated a decline in fish species like the bacalao, as discussed in the "Impacted Species" section above, once considered a very important species to fishing in the Galápagos[7]. Over time, there have been significant declines in the catch of this fish. Now, bacalao is listed as vulnerable under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global authority assessing the conservation status of species[7][46]. The IUCN informs decisions about conservation priorities, making their listing of bacalao as a vulnerable species important for conservation decisions like those taking place in the Galápagos[46]. With the help of the IUCN the Government of Ecuador, as well as many institutions and researchers, have made efforts to minimize overfishing in the Galápagos[47]. The local people of the Galápagos have also made efforts to minimize overfishing[48]. The culture of the people in the Galápagos is incredibly diverse, but one thing they have in common is their respect and care for nature[48]. The cultures value the environment and wish to conserve it, and even have environmental terminology taught in schools and in places of work[48]. They demonstrate this value by contributing to governmental decisions, especially when they relate to environmental management[48]. They even formed a Participatory Management Board (PMB), seeking to ensure the responsible participation of those taking part in the Management Plan for Conservation and Sustainable Use of the Galápagos Marine Reserve (GMR), which was institutionalized in the Galápagos Special Law of 1998[48]. This participation from the local people in the Government of Ecuador along with the participation from the Government itself, institutions and researchers, has resulted in the declaration of the Galápagos Islands as a National Park, Marine Resource Reserve and World Heritage Site, as well as the Government’s Galápagos Special Law of 1998, all detailed above in the section “Past, current and future solutions''. These efforts make the views of the locals, the Government of Ecuador, several institutions, and researchers clear, they want these islands protected and overfishing to stop.

However, further research shows that protecting the islands from overfishing may not be in everyone's best interest. Some researchers suggest the cultures of the Galápagos have no culture of conservation at all[31]. And instead, suggest the local people care more about their rights to the resources than the preservation of those resources[31]. The mass amounts of income gained from overfishing may have a role to play in these conflicting views on overfishing from both the local people and the Government. Between 1999 and 2005, there was an increase of 42,529 tourists on the Galápagos islands which prompted an increase in fishing[47]. During these years, the number of fishermen increased by 795 to 993, and the number of fishing vessels doubled to 446[47]. Fish sales off of the islands of Isabela, Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal increased from $1,505,484 in 1998 to $2,437,153 in 2005[47].Total expenditures of domestic tourists during this time also grew by 92.9% and foreign tourists by 61.7%, with average total expenditures of foreign tourists going from about $3,677 to $4,180[47]. As the demand for fishing and the total expenditures of tourists increased, the incomes of those who sold to the tourists did too. These were often the locals who benefitted from this increase in income[47]. The Ecuadorian economy as a whole also benefited greatly from the increased Galápagos tourism, and therefore increased fishing, and even used some of the extra money to contribute to conservation[49]. The Government of Ecuador put money towards research and the management of the National Park as well, both helping with the conservation of the lands and surrounding marine environment[47]. Given the economic advantages to overfishing in the Galápagos Islands for the Ecuadorian economy and the people living in the Galápagos, we could see how conflicting viewpoints on the issue could come up and make future decisions regarding overfishing on the Galápagos Islands a little more complex.


Biodiversity and high endemism unique to the Galápagos Islands has been threatened by overfishing for almost two decades[6]. The practice is not just threatening one species, but the whole ecosystem and food web. This has also generated impacts on the local communities, fishermen, and the economy. And although most parties agree that overfishing in the area should be minimized, the economic benefits make it a much less attractive solution[47]. The money gained from increasing tourism and therefore increased fishing has not only contributed to the livelihoods of the people but to the conservation of the islands as well, creating a dilemma for the Government of Ecuador[49]. Nonetheless, various Governmental and institutional actions have been taken to minimize the effects of overfishing, but the issue still remains a great threat to the islands and the species within and around them[1][27][29].


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Note: Before writing your wiki article on the UBC Wiki, it may be helpful to review the tips in Wikipedia: Writing better articles.[1]

  1. (2018). Writing better articles. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 Jan. 2018].
Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
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