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Galapagos Island Shark Population In Danger From Overfishing

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Sharks in the Galapagos Islands are being decimated by fleets of fishing vessels, many of them Chinese. And that's bringing these vital creatures to the brink of extinction. Alex Hearn is a professor of biology at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador, and he's advocating for an expansion of protected waters in the area to save the sharks. And he joins us now.

Professor Hearn, welcome to the program.

ALEX HEARN: Thank you. It's great to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I understand fleets of international ships, many of them Chinese, come to these waters every year, and they are there now. What brings them there?

HEARN: Well, the waters off Galapagos and just in this region are very, very productive. Galapagos Islands are like a big obstacle in the middle of the ocean. So there's a deep cold-water current that's flowing from the west. And when it hits the Galapagos platform, it's diverted up towards the surface. And that creates a lot of productivity, so we get, you know, very rich fishing grounds and also fantastic biodiversity.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How many ships are there? How many sharks are there? And, you know, what is the situation exactly as it stands at the moment?

HEARN: Well, Galapagos is home to about 30-odd species of sharks. And some of those are critically endangered, such as the scalloped hammerhead shark. And some of those are also highly migratory - the scalloped hammerhead, the silky shark, the whale shark. They all leave the borders of the marine reserve, and then they are subject to different levels of threat.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So these vessels come into these waters. And while they're fishing for other species, they catch these sharks in their nets.

HEARN: Yes, depending on the method of fishing. The longliners are perhaps the vessels that we would most be concerned about. These are ostensibly fishing for tuna, but they will also catch several endangered shark species during their fishing activities. And we know that if they do catch these species, then they will retain them and keep them on board.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So these vessels, though, we should be clear, aren't doing anything illegal. They are allowed to fish where they're fishing. So why exactly are shark populations still taking a hit?

HEARN: Right. These vessels are operating in international waters. And depending on the fleet, they'll be operating under regional fisheries organizations. The problem is that the species that we're trying to protect in Galapagos don't understand any of that. They go where they want to go.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of course.

HEARN: And the problem is that once they leave the protective waters of the marine reserve, they're immediately under threat. There are hammerhead foraging grounds out in international waters. And numbers have declined. There was a study at Cocos Island, which is our neighbor in Galapagos, and they found that hammerhead sharks have declined by about 45% since the creation of the marine reserve, which is not the result you would hope for.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what you're advocating is for an expansion of Ecuador's marine reserves - right? - that would help protect these areas of marine diversity and also the shark species.

HEARN: Yeah. I'm advocating on several levels. I think, first of all, we need to expand our marine reserve. And this is something that we can do as a nation within our jurisdiction. But I think we also need to play a more prominent role in the development of the biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction agreement that is currently in the works. And this will allow for better protection for these species once they're in the high seas. It will even allow for the creation of open-water or high seas marine protected areas. So I think we have to work on several levels. The international waters need to be considered in a more conservation perspective than they have been till now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alex Hearn is a professor of biology at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador.

Professor Hearn, thank you very much.

HEARN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.