Tackling the biggest challenge for conservation in Galapagos: legal small-scale fisheries

Small-scale or artisanal fisheries on the Galapagos are legal and impact over 60 species, several of them only found in the Archipelago and at risk of extinction. In particular, the fin-fish fishery shows clear signs of over-exploitation and tends to catch many unintended species.

Past and Present of Fisheries in Galapagos

Fisheries is one of the oldest economic activities on the Islands, which were annexed to Ecuador in 1832. One of the first attempts of colonizing the islands, which do not have ancestral cultures, was in the early 1920s by a group of Norwegian settlers that intended to whale, and fish and can groupers, lobsters and sea turtles. This attempt ended in the late 1920s when their boiler exploded. However, because of these attempts and in order to protect the unique marine communities of the islands, the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR) was created in 1998 as a multi-use protected area.

Red spiny lobster (Panulirus penicillatus). Photo credit: Isabel Haro, Charles Darwin Foundation


The declaration of the GMR also came with a ban on industrial/commercial fishing but allowed artisanal fisheries in specific areas under a coastal zoning scheme. Despite the creation of the GMR, the number of fishers rose to over 1,200, particularly during the sea cucumber boom in early 2000s, until its collapse in the later part of that decade.

Cucumber 2JPG
Sea cucumber (Isustichupus fuscus). Photo credit: Charles Darwin Foundation

At present, although there are over 1,200 licenses, fishing is only carried out by ~400 fishers and is the least managed of economic activities. Of the more than 60 fish and invertebrates fished, only 4 have species-specific regulations. Fin-fishes are, along with lobsters, the largest fishery, which mostly targets bottom-dwelling fish such as groupers and snappers that are commonly slow-growing animals that reproduce later in life and are therefore very vulnerable to unregulated fishing.

The problem: lack of information.

How we intend to fix it: studying young fish and invertebrates in their environments

One of the main problems for the Galapagos National Park Directorate, which manages the marine resources in the GMR, is the lack of information on these animals, particularly during their initial lives. To fill these knowledge gaps, scientists at the Charles Darwin Foundation’s Marine Science Program are studying biological communities present in mangroves, sandy beach surf zones, and other coastal environments, which often function as home for young fish and invertebrates. We use a combination of field, lab and computer analysis to carry out these studies. In the field, we use traps that employ light to attract animals, baited video cameras, and a traditional fishing hook-and-line method called empate.

Light traps being used in rocky and sandy habitats. Trap on the right shows funnels that allow animals to enter trap but not exit. Photo Credit: P. Marti-Puig and S. Andrade
Light traps being used in rocky and sandy habitats. The trap on the right shows funnels that allow animals to enter the trap but not exit. Photo Credit: P. Marti-Puig and S. Andrade

In the lab, besides describing the animals collected, we analyze fish otoliths, or ear bones. These bones are analogous to trees in that they have daily and annual rings that allow us to age the animals and estimate their growth, since the width of the ring is related to how much the fish grew during that particular time.

Otolith or fish ear bone of four year old Peruvian hake (note four rings) collected in continental Ecuador. Photo Credit: M.L. Cardenas and A. dos Santos
Otolith, or fish ear bone, of four-year-old Peruvian hake (note four rings) collected in continental Ecuador. Photo Credit: M.L. Cardenas and A. dos Santos

We hope the information from our studies will allow the GNPD to take management actions, such as setting size and catch limits, or closure to the fishery during reproductive periods, to reduce the impact of fishing on these iconic animals.

This blog was written as an exercise of a National Geographic Storytelling bootcamp carried out at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, Galapagos, Ecuador

Jose Marin JarrinDr. Jose Marin Jarrin is an Ecuadorian fish and crustacean ecologist who obtained a PhD in Fisheries science at Oregon State University. Jose arrived at the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) in May 2016 from Guayaquil, Ecuador, as a Senior Fisheries Ecologist with the focus on studying several commercially important fish species, the impact of El Niño events on artisanal fisheries catch and the role of mangroves for juvenile fishes in Galápagos. Dr. Marin Jarrin is now the interim scientific coordinator for CDF, and is working to develop the first fish age and growth laboratory on the Galapagos Islands.



  1. Eileen Warkala
    Milford. NJ
    July 29, 6:10 pm

    As of July 29 what is the current season for red spiny lobsters to be sold in the Galapagos?