January 12, 2023
Featured image: A female whale shark migrates past Darwin Island. Image © Dr. Alex Hearn
By Courtney Mattison
It’s difficult to think of a place more deserving of status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site than the Galápagos. With cold-water organisms like penguins and kelp living among tropical corals and endemic bullhead sharks, this “melting pot” of marine biodiversity is unparalleled. In 1998, the Ecuadorian Government safeguarded 138,000 square kilometers of ocean surrounding the Galápagos Islands Hope Spot through the creation of the Galápagos Marine Reserve. Nearly 25 years on, Mission Blue celebrates this great achievement alongside a team of researchers led by Mission Blue founder and National Geographic Society Explorer-at-Large Dr. Sylvia Earle and principal expedition investigator and Hope Spot Co-Champion, Professor Alex Hearn. In July 2022, this international team of experts boarded the MV Argo for the Galápagos Islands Hope Spot Expedition. With this momentous anniversary in mind, the research team took stock of the marine reserve’s past successes and considered the challenges on the horizon.
Examples of success are easy to list in the Galápagos Marine Reserve. “I think the biggest success story is that when the marine reserve was declared, industrial fishing was removed,” says Dr. Hearn. He continues, “So industrial fishing no longer occurs within 40 nautical miles of the marine reserve. And that must have a huge impact on the pelagic assemblage, except we’re not measuring it.” Dr. Hearn and his team are developing indicators to quantify those results. In the northernmost islands of Darwin and Wolf, Dr. Hearn observes that shark populations have been holding steady except during El Niño events. “It was a river of hammerhead sharks,” he said of sightings near Darwin during the July expedition. Also in this remote part of the archipelago, the research team witnessed “a parade” of large female whale sharks in a migration pattern that occurs every summer and again in the fall. Their abundance doesn’t seem to have changed either, reports Dr. Hearn, and still “nobody knows why they migrate in this way.” He theorizes that they may be transiting between planktonic food sources.
Migratory corridors are particularly important around a remote island group like the Galápagos, where international fishing fleets from China and other countries prowl the waters just outside of protected areas. During the Galápagos Islands Hope Spot Expedition, Dr. Hearn’s team downloaded receivers that indicated that a hammerhead shark they tagged as a juvenile off the coast of Costa Rica five years previously was close to the expedition vessel, MV Argo, while visiting Darwin’s Arch. In other words, juvenile grounds in Costa Rica connect to transboundary waters for adult sharks in the Galápagos. Dr. Hearn says, “The measures that Ecuador takes have to go hand-in-hand with the measures that Costa Rica takes. Otherwise, we’re just fighting a losing battle.” In January 2022, Dr. Earle visited Galápagos to dive with Ecuador’s Minister of Environment, Gustavo Manrique, to celebrate the signing of a decree by Ecuadorian President Lasso expanding the Galápagos Marine Reserve by nearly 50 percent. This action was also built on a promise made in 2021 by President Lasso along with the presidents of Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama to join forces to protect the Eastern Tropical Pacific “seascape.” Dr. Earle believes that protecting this migratory corridor is essential “for safe passage for some of the big animals that don’t know where our boundaries are.” She continues, “They don’t know that we have rules and regulations about who owns what. They think they own the ocean. Maybe we should think that way too; they got here first.”
Protecting an ecosystem as diverse and remote as the Galápagos goes well beyond restricting industrial fishing. Many other human-caused threats such as climate change and plastic pollution challenge the success of the Galápagos Marine Reserve, and the impacts of climate change grow every day. Jen Jones of the Galápagos Conservation Trust has measured relatively high plastic pollution in the south and east of the archipelago, but fortunately on this expedition to the western region, she detected much less. This finding will help her advise the Park on how to focus its plastic cleanup efforts to be cost-effective and efficient. Her microplastic samples are still being analyzed.
Plastic pollution and climate change both affect flightless seabirds in the Galápagos – namely endemic cormorant and penguin species that forage near shore. Professor Susana Cárdenas of Universidad San Francisco de Quito studies these species and collected foraging movement data during the expedition. She focused on climate change impacts by recording ambient temperature simultaneously with foraging movement data using biologgers attached to individuals of each species in the far western shores of Fernandina, where these metrics have never been recorded with such advanced technology. After 24-48 hours, the biologgers were retrieved and data are being used to map foraging grounds and quantify energy expenditure for both species. Collecting this information is the “first step to understanding the potential impacts of climate change on their foraging ecology,” says Dr. Hearn. Dr. Cárdenas hypothesizes that warming waters will cause these species to travel farther to feed, with potential impacts on species dispersal and survival.
The greatest challenge to the future success of the Galápagos Marine Reserve may be climate change. The productivity and abundance of endemic species (found nowhere else) in the Galápagos depends on the upwelling of the Equatorial Undercurrent off the west coast of the archipelago. This area is particularly vulnerable to changing temperatures due to El Niño events and climate change, according to Dr. Hearn. Changes to this upwelling affect food availability for animals above and below the surface as well as habitat suitability for temperature-dependent species such as the cold-water kelp that National Geographic Explorer and research team member Salomé Buglass studies.
Despite the specter of climate change, the expedition team lauded the Park’s past successes and expressed optimism. As photographer and Galápagos resident Tui de Roy remarked onboard, “In Galápagos there’s so much to save but so much to lose. We’ve still got that chance.” Dr. Hearn described his sense of “fragile hope” and highlighted the inspiring story of his Hope Spot co-champion Manuel (aka Manolo) Yepez Revelo, a conservationist and Galapagueño ecotourism operator:
Manolo is an example of how Hope Spots bring hope. He’s quite frank about the fact that when he was younger, he’d be fishing for sharks and sea cucumbers, but something changed along the way. And the more time we spend in the water — under the water — you stop seeing the ocean as resource, and harvesting, and quotas, and you start seeing it for what it is: a life-giver. As Sylvia says, if there’s no blue, there’s no green. And I think Manolo saw that. And I think more people are seeing that here, so he’s an example.
Personal connections to conservation issues are vital to inspiring action, and Manolo’s story offers other Galapagueños a direct example of how they can get involved. Representation was also on the mind of Salome Buglass, who says:
I’m also hoping that on this expedition, little brown and black girls get to see me and they know that it’s totally possible to do this as well, that this is not an exclusive space for only a group of people, that it doesn’t matter who you are and where you are — you can do this. It’s a labor of love and I hope to see more and more people who look like me doing this kind of work. Representation matters. You cannot be what you don’t see.
As the 25th anniversary of the Galápagos Marine Reserve approaches early next year, Mission Blue applauds those involved and looks forward to the research team’s ongoing work. As Dr. Earle says, “We’re witnesses of this exceptional point in time.”
Special thanks to Rolex and National Geographic for sponsoring this expedition, to SCUBAPRO for outfitting the Mission Blue Galápagos research team, and to Deep Sea Productions for generous in-kind filmmaking support. This expedition was planned in collaboration with Oceanic Society with additional expert content creation from Proudfoot, Taylor Griffith and Tui de Roy.