Marine Reserve of the Galapagos Islands - A Galapagos Balancing Act


In some ways, managing the Galapagos Islands is easier than managing the waters around them. Everyone agrees that tourism is the Galapagos Islands' bread and butter. But the sea means different things to different people. To strict conservationists, humans are an invasive alien species with no rightful place in the ecology of the Galapagos Island waters - Galapagos Island cruises and tours are a danger with no upside. Those concerned with the perpetuation of tourism naturally consider Galapagos' marine life an integral part of the Islands' environment, but not to be overly restricted. Fishermen, on the other hand, see marine life as a resource to be extracted and view themselves as the threatened species.

The conservationists make a good case. After all, islands create their own isolated ecosystems, and nowhere in the world is there so vast an array of species within such a small area as in the Galapagos. This biodiversity has evolved over billions of years, almost completely devoid of human intervention. Without the protection of the Galapagos Islands' 2,900 different species of marine life and their varied habitats of rocky bottoms, walls, beaches, coral reefs, mangrove forests and other coastal vegetation, the Galapagos cannot be adequately preserved. Many species that live on the land for periods of time rely on the sea for nourishment, cormorants, penguins and sea lions among them. Such an environment requires a protective scheme that takes this interconnection into account.

Managing the Marine Reserve of the Galapagos Islands - As a response to illegal and over fishing, it seemed logical, then, to establish a thirteen nautical-mile restrictive zone in and around the Galapagos Islands in 1986. Over the next twelve years, the Galapagos National Park Service struggled to enforce fishing quotas as fisherman and politicians rebelled against what they considered unreasonable regulations having everything to do with wildlife and nothing to do with people. Human and animal hostages were taken. A park warden was shot.

In 1998, Congress passed the "Special Law for the Conservation and Sustainable Development of the Province of the Galapagos," expanding the Galapagos Marine Reserve to 40 nautical miles, creating what is today the second largest such reserve in the world. The Park Service was placed in charge of administering it. Though the far-reaching law prohibited most large-scale commercial fishing, it contained an even more forward-looking provision, calling for Reserve management policies to be developed in conjunction with the affected sectors--fishing interests, tourism, the Charles Darwin Research Station and the Galapagos National Park Service. Decisions would be made jointly.

The law took years to implement and could be considered bureaucratically cumbersome by some critics. But it bears more than a passing resemblance to the decision-making model that has made workable the often contentious environmental laws and regulations of the United States that require environmentalists, the business community and government to be at the table.

A Board of Shared Management was established comprised of delegates representing the stakeholders. Procedures were adopted for making decisions by consensus and for resolving differences of opinion. The Park Service was given the authority to make decisions on an interim basis when emergencies occur.

In official documents describing the Board, the words "participation" and "representation" are used liberally. The premium placed on inclusiveness can be seen in how the Board framed its objectives. Three naturally dealt with the paramount importance of protecting and conserving the marine and coastal ecosystem of the Galapagos Islands. Two sought to preserve and recover the fishing resources important to the local communities and to improve the social and economic status of these communities to make fishing compatible with biodiversity. Two addressed the importance of tourism and the necessity to protect its economic base by managing the industry's impacts and by preserving the coasts' scenic values. Three dealt with furthering scientific inquiry and education. One was about financing. Perhaps the most important objective dealt not with ecosystems, fishing or tourism: It was about a shared and adaptable management system.

Sixty percent of Ecuador's citizens live below the poverty line, and per capita income is under $1,500. Figuring out how to balance the needs of the environment with those of people is the conundrum of environmental policy debated in countries the world over, but here on the Galapagos Islands, the stakes seem far higher and the timeline foreshortened.