A New Galápagos “Ocean Highway” Protects Endangered Species

In January, Ecuador designated a new marine reserve in the Galápagos, preserving a critical migratory route for the islands’ most at-risk wildlife.

A New Galápagos “Ocean Highway” Protects Endangered Species

Ecuador recently expanded the Galápagos Marine Reserve by 23,000 square miles—a move that will protect the migratory routes of hammerhead sharks, among other species.

Courtesy of Quasar Expeditions

For the first time, during February 2021, scientists documented the real-time journey of a pregnant scalloped hammerhead shark. The shark, whom scientists named Cassiopeia, traveled from the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador to Coco Island, Costa Rica, a distance of 430 miles, which she covered in just under two weeks. From there, she would travel roughly the same distance again to reach the Gulf of Panama to give birth in the safety of mangrove bays before returning home.

This migratory route connecting Ecuadorian and Costa Rican waters is crucial to the survival of this critically endangered shark among other imperiled migratory species like green sea turtles, whale sharks, and eagle rays. It’s also the very stretch of ocean that Ecuador aims to protect with its January 2022 designation of a new reserve—a first bold step in ongoing efforts within the region that could ultimately help save one of the most famous marine reserves on Earth.

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Bartolome Island is one of the most iconic in the Galápagos archipelago and home to penguins, sea lions, and other marine life.

Photo by Jess Kraft/Shutterstock

Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso announced the new Reserva Marina de Hermandad at the November United Nations Climate Change conference in Glasgow, Scotland. The area expands the 53,000-square-mile Galápagos Marine Reserve—which encompasses the entire archipelago—by close to 50 percent, or 23,000 square miles, and protects what experts refer to as an underwater highway for migratory wildlife.

Half of the new area is a no-fishing zone, while the other half prohibits long-line fishing, a common type of commercial fishing where hundreds and sometimes thousands of hooks are attached to a line that also inadvertently catches and kills sharks, turtles, birds, and other marine wildlife. (It’s estimated that 300,000 seabirds die on long-lines each year.)

“Safeguarding the critical migration routes for these vital species will result in healthier and more abundant populations, benefiting not only wildlife but the livelihood of people who depend on tourism and fishing,” said President Lasso in an opinion piece he wrote for Mongabay.

The remote Galápagos archipelago, about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, is a natural wonderland filled with charismatic marine wildlife, including blue whales, stingrays, sea turtles, Sally Lightfoot crabs, and blue-footed boobies that inspired 19th-century naturalist Charles Darwin’s theories on evolution.

Galápagos National Park, which sits within the Galápagos Marine Reserve, annually attracts roughly a quarter of a million tourists, who pay park fees that help to maintain the reserve. But the survival of the area’s rich biodiversity depends on habitats far beyond the waters that tourists visit, according to Bolivar Sanchez, an Ecuadorian naturalist and a guide for Galápagos National Park.

“Many marine species, particularly larger pelagic [open sea] wildlife like hammerheads, Galápagos sharks, and whale sharks, are migratory, and they go all the way to Costa Rica and Panama and then back to the Galápagos every year,” he explained. “Had the marine reserve not been expanded, the results of illegal and overfishing in Galápagos’ waters would have been more strongly felt every year, and we would have seen an inevitable change in the behavior and population numbers of many key species.”

Sanchez has a decades-long perspective on the long-term changes of the region’s unique habitat due to damaging activities like overfishing near the park. He spent much of his childhood in and around his family’s small tourism boat in the Galápagos Islands in the 1980s when adventure travel here was still in its early stages.

Now, he leads ecotourism experiences with Quasar Expeditions, whose smaller yachts aim to tread more lightly on the archipelago. The fleet will soon include the 18-passenger M/Y Conservation, which launches later this year with such sustainable features as renewable energy, biodegradable amenities, and a carbon neutral footprint.

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A marine iguana—a species endemic to the islands—signals its approval of the new marine reserve.

Courtesy of Quasar Expeditions

The negative effects from overfishing are most visible underwater, Sanchez said. “I have many friends who are specialized scuba-diving guides in Galápagos, and they are the ones who have seen the biggest changes in the past 20 years,” he said. The massive schools of hammerhead sharks found off the northern islands of Wolf and Darwin have diminished in size, while sightings of whale sharks in the same area have also become less common. The enormous schools of 400-pound tuna that divers saw frequently just 20 years ago have mostly vanished.

Such stark observations are why naturalists like Sanchez hope the expanded reserve in Ecuador will lead to even more protections (such as the nearly 200,000-square-mile transboundary biosphere reserve that Ecuador is trying to establish in partnership with Panama, Colombia, and Costa Rica). Sanchez feels the potential multi-country expansion of the reserve is much needed and long overdue: Galápagos used to be the world’s second largest marine reserve, but it’s now ranked 26th.

“If you see the size of the corridor and compare it to the size of the marine reserves of all these key islands and underwater sanctuaries, we are only hitting the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “We need Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica to do the same thing as Galápagos and extend the size of their marine reserves so we can protect more of this corridor. And we need all the countries in the world who have a marine reserve to expand it as much as possible and protect it from fishing.”

>>Next: A New Partnership Aims to Protect Our Fragile Oceans—Here’s How Travelers Can Help

Jennifer Flowers is an award-winning journalist and the senior deputy editor of AFAR.
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