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Image from marinetraffic.com, captured August 12, 2020

Danger in Darwin’s Laboratory

From a satellite’s perspective, it might seem innocuous: a rainbow-colored cluster no bigger than a thumbprint in the vast blue sea east of Ecuador. But at water-level, those bright little pins on the map represent a colossal fishing fleet that stretches over 300 miles just south of the Galapagos Islands—nearly double the length of the Galapagos archipelago itself. For the last few summers, during the time when the cool Humboldt current fuels rich ocean life, enormous flotillas of predominantly Chinese fishing vessels have lined up just outside the Galápagos Marine Reserve—a UNESCO World Heritage Site and birthplace of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.   

Their target? Ostensibly, squid and other legal prey just beyond Ecuador’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). But as the world watches with trepidation, it is impossible not to infer the real victims of this supersized international fishing operation: sharks.

The Galapagos Islands and surrounding waters are home to an extraordinary diversity of shark species. Silky sharks cruise the open waters where the islands drop away into deep sea, and endangered dusky sharks slice past on long migratory journeys that can carry them over 2000 miles. In places where critically endangered scalloped hammerhead sharks gather by the hundreds to feed in groups, divers have compared the massive, slow-moving shadow that they cast to a solar eclipse.

Though the Galapagos Marine Reserve—with its five converging ocean currents and rich history of evolution and biodiversity—is a sanctuary for these sharks, their protections end where the Ecuadorian EEZ ends.

Global Shark Disappearances

A recent article in the UK Daily Mail outlined the grim history of Chinese fishing vessels near the Galapagos. Although it is illegal in China and Hong Kong to sell most shark species, shark fin soup—brothy, gelatinous, originally an imperial delicacy—sells for nearly $500 a bowl. The appetite for coveted fins continues to grow: in 2015, roughly $385,000 worth of illegal shark fins were seized; by last year, the number had skyrocketed to over $20 million. This year, a study tracked the vast majority of Hong Kong’s shark fins back to an area in the Eastern Pacific that includes the Galapagos Islands. 

In 2019, 245 Chinese fishing vessels congregated in the waters just outside the Galapagos. This July, that number rose to 260. A flyover at the beginning of this week revealed a staggering 340 ships, bristling with an estimated 30 million fishing hooks. In 2017, a single one of these gigantic boats, the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, was waylaid after crossing illegally into Galapagos waters. Onboard: 300 tons of scalloped hammerheads and other shark species, chopped and stacked in slatted wooden holds.

Poached sharks found aboard the Chinese fishing vessel Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999. Image: Galapagos National Park via AP

From balancing coral and seagrass ecosystems that serve as blue carbon habitats in a sea increasingly destabilized by climate change, to maintaining diverse and resilient food webs, sharks are vital to ocean health and economic wealth. Due to demand for shark fins, high bycatch in large-scale fishing operations, and other pressures worldwide, global shark populations have plummeted. Because many species are slow to reach sexual maturity and often only reproduce every few years, shark populations are quick to collapse and slow to rebuild. This July, a sobering study revealed that reef sharks are now functionally extinct in 20% of the world’s reef systems.  Loss of sharks can topple entire ecosystems, and because many of these apex predators are nomadic, it’s a problem that’s bigger than any one country.

International Solutions

When it comes to conservation issues that transcend borders, The Galapagos Archipelago is a posterchild for international management concerns. The islands are part of a rich underwater system of seamounts that support extraordinary shark diversity in the Tropical Eastern Pacific. For 23 million years, seafloor spreading has released plumes of hot rock that have built long island chains and undersea ridges extending eastward toward the Ecuadorian mainland along the submerged Carnegie Ridge, as well as stretching northeast from the present-day Galapagos islands along the Cocos Ridge, as far north as Cocos Island National Park in Costa Rica and the Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary in Colombia. These three sanctuaries—the Galapagos, Cocos Island, and Malpelo—are all Blue Parks—which means that they meet the highest international standards for well-managed and highly protected marine protected areas (MPAs). However, management plans within the MPAs can’t account for what happens between and beyond them, where highly threatened shark species move freely along underwater volcanic ridges into largely unregulated high seas.

Migratory sharks like hammerheads travel beyond the borders of MPAs and may need the help of international regulations to evade extinction. Image: David Clode on Unsplash.

In the fight to protect migratory routes and to preserve ecosystems that rely on transient apex predators, the open ocean may well be the next frontier in marine conservation. Historically, the high seas—the international waters that generally begin 200 nautical miles off most nations’ shores—have been lawless expanses subject to overfishing and piracy, but a new high seas treaty could help protect biodiversity on these vast blue global commons. Currently, a proposed treaty is being developed to help seal up gaps in the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Representatives from countries around the world convened in 2018 and 2019 to negotiate for better high seas management tools, including marine protected areas, which currently don’t exist in international waters. A fourth round of negotiations was scheduled for March of 2020, but was postponed due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Hope for the High Seas

In the suspended pause in which the world finds itself right now—between shut-downs, delayed conventions, and a pandemic that is pushing us to look at how human and environmental health are interlocked—it is an apt time to slow down and think big. This May, a familiar Galapagos Islands whale shark named Esperanza (“Hope,” in English) was cut off from her location transmitter tags not far from the flotilla of Chinese fishing vessels near the archipelago: a presumed—though unprovable—bycatch victim. Whale sharks—like so many other sharks that inhabit Galapagos waters—travel large distances and bridge international waters along the sweeping paths that they swim. Individual whale sharks are identified by the speckled patterning on their sides—scientists identify them using the same software that NASA uses to identify constellations. Just as these sharks are distinguished using cosmic tools; just as unregulated fishing vessels are tracked from above by satellites; just as countries around the world are beginning to come together to brainstorm how to safeguard the high seas, perhaps the urgent solutions we need to protect this blue planet will best be arrived at from a broad view, where community is seen as not just a regional idea but a global one.

During Shark Week and every week, the most important goal we can work toward is to protect at least 30% of the ocean by 2030, including the high seas that belong to both no one and everyone. This Tuesday, August 11, Ecuador joined the Global Ocean Alliance in sharing this 30×30 commitment–an important leadership step in galvanizing the rest of Latin America to unite around shared ocean conservation goals. Though Esperanza may be lost, hope abides in wild ocean places where we can still seek common ground—or rather, common water—across borders.

Individual whale sharks—the largest fish on Earth—are identified by their star-like patterns. Image: Sebastian Pena Lambarri on Unsplash.