National Geographic On Assignment
Editor's Note: Jennifer Hile, a correspondent for National Geographic On Assignment, traveled to the Galápagos Islands to investigate illegal fishing and shark fin harvesting by poachers. Here she reveals the difficulties faced by the park rangers fighting the problem.
The 100-foot (33-meter) Guadalupe River patrol boat plows through the southern seas of the Galápagos Islands Marine Reserve, kicking up heavy spray, as rangers scan for poachers.
I thought I was coming to one of the world's most protected and pristine environments. After all, 97 percent of the Galápagos Islands, 600 miles (965 kilometers) from Ecuador, is designated park land: 3,000 square miles (7,880 square kilometers) of land scattered between 13 large islands, six small ones, 40 islets, and countless humps and bumps.
The islands themselves are encircled by a colossal moat50,000 square miles (129,499 square kilometers) of the surrounding sea is protected as a marine reserve, one of the largest in the world.
About 90 percent of the reptiles, half the birds, and one-third of the plants here exist nowhere else. There's so little fresh water and the volcanic landscape is so inhospitable, only a narrow, unique spectrum of creatures thrive. Deep-diving marine iguanas and tortoises the size of dinner tables gives the islands a fairytale quality.
Cordoning off the islands as parkland was intended to preserve this place, freeing it from the crushing pressures of a burgeoning human population. But within days of arriving, one of my first impressions was of how much impact humans are having on this fragile ecosystem.
Underwater Gold Rush
When the reserve was created by Ecuador in 1959, hardly anyone lived on these islands. An illegal fishing boom beginning in the early 90s changed that permanently.
As more accessible, coastal waters off South America were overfished and emptied, commercial boats zeroed in on the protected waters of the Galápagos.
Fishermen from Ecuador poured in with dreams of easy money, encouraged by commercial boats from Asia paying big money for high-end delicacies like shark fins and sea cucumbers.
Unfortunately, the Ecuadorian government did little to intervene; the problems of such a remote province were easy to overlook.
The local park staff had too little money and too few people to deal with the growing conflict on their own. The aluminum-hulled Guadalupe River was donated in 1995; its clunky engines guaranteed the rangers could never catch anyone.