People who fish for a living on Galapagos pressured to change careers

Written by Kirsten Johnson, (Go To Source) THE CANADIAN PRESS

Friday, 06 February 2009

PUERTO AYORA, Galapagos Islands — Fisherman Luis Enrique Bonilla just wants to make a living. Galapagos Islands conservationists, worried that the marine reserve is overfished, want him to work in tourism.

Bonilla and the local fishermen he represents say a move from commercial fishing to boat tours is an expensive and complex prospect for which they have no money or training. They’ve already made concessions to preserve marine species: each owning only one small boat and using simple lines and lures to catch fish by hand.

But even with the restrictions, some species in the Galapagos Marine Reserve have been decimated — including sea cucumbers and lobster — putting even more pressure on fishermen forced to live off smaller catches.

On the eve of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, Bonilla’s story shows just how hard it is to protect the archipelago’s biodiversity that Darwin made famous. Changing livelihoods from those that destroy the islands to those that sustain them is easier said than done.

“I want to be able to sell more fish,” Bonilla said. “Right now that’s hard to do with the way the rules are.” The marine reserve, home to more than 3,000 species, has suffered over the years from fishermen eager to exploit local, national and international markets, park officials say.

Edwin Naula, director of tourism and a former director of the Galapagos National Park, said it has been a struggle to get fishermen to comply with rules to protect the reserve.

“It’s like when you have your children in the house and everything is out of order. And of course the children get angry when the father comes home and tells them to put things in order,” he said.

Darwin, who was born Feb. 12, 1809, first arrived nearly 175 years ago, discovering the unique species that would become the basis for his theory of evolution. The spectacular subjects of his work, including finches, giant tortoises, marine iguanas and blue-footed boobies, now draw more than 150,000 tourists a year to the Ecuadorean islands about 1,000 kilometres offshore in the Pacific Ocean.

They were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 for the unique animal and plant species and added in 2007 to UNESCO’s list of sites in danger from environmental threats or overuse.

Although the fishing industry is still the second-most lucrative in the Galapagos, it is far behind tourism — bringing about US$3 million to islands’ economy versus $63 million from tourism, according to the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos Institute.

Bonilla, 43, who came to the Galapagos Islands at age 11 from mainland Ecuador, has been fishing for most of his life. He carries a license and is president of the Santa Cruz Island fishing co-operative, a group of more than 200 fishermen on the major inhabited island among 22 main islands and scores of smaller ones.

Industrial fishing has been prohibited in the marine reserve since 1998. So fishermen — at least those who fish legally — are limited to what they can catch with artisan methods. Bonilla, whose crew at times is his shy 12-year-old son, Luis Jr., trolls with lures on fishing expeditions that can last up to four days.

He fishes in a fibreglass boat named the “Eagle Ray,” one of many small vessels called fibras, and has no money to invest in modern equipment that would make his work more efficient. His on-board refrigeration, for example, is an ice chest he fills in the morning before he leaves, limiting the size of fresh catches he can keep until he can sell them to cruise ships.

Co-operative members see the regulations on their industry as unnecessarily strict. But overfishing also has made it hard for them to make a living.

The sea cucumber population dropped dramatically in the last decade, said Matthias Wolff, director of marine and coastal sciences for the Charles Darwin Foundation.

In 2001, he said, some eight million sea cucumbers were harvested and sold for as much as a dollar each in Taiwan. By 2008, a negotiated sea cucumber quota of 1.2 million was not even met. Without the sea cucumber and lobster, fishermen have turned to other species, such as sharks, which are illegal to fish. Though he follows the rules, Bonilla said most fishermen have landed illegal species at some time or another.

The national park officials see an alternative business for the fishermen in tourism, either in fishing trips showing visitors their simple methods or in day trips to go snorkelling or hiking.

Bonilla says he can’t make money on the first option, and the second is too expensive, requiring life jackets, canopies and bathrooms, among other modifications.

The fishermen are limited by their small boats in attracting enough passengers to make a profit that would justify their investment, he added. And very few speak languages other than Spanish.

The park has been promising tourism licenses exclusively for members of the fishing co-operatives since 2001, but they’ve been bogged down in bureaucracy and disputes over how the licenses would be granted. Cooperative members complain that non-fishermen are getting fishing licences just to qualify for the tourism licenses when they become available.

Even for those who can get licences, it is expensive to launch even a small tourist operation. The environmental impact study alone can cost up to $15,000, Bonilla said, more than the $9,000 to $14,000 fishermen make in a year.

There are other startup costs, and it is difficult for local residents to get loans.

“When it’s for the tourism sector, they can do anything they want,” he said, referring to the cruise ships. “But for the fishing sector, they want us to change our boats.

” Bonilla would be happy to see others switch to tourism. It is good for him as well as the park if fewer people are fishing the reserve.

But he would never dream of doing anything else.

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About Rene

About Ecuador, Galápagos, the Hospitality & Tourism industry, Conservation and personal Tidbits from a Swiss Hôtelier working in Ecuador & Galapagos and committed to supporting and encouraging local youngsters in Education, Sports and Environmental protection via my Foundation "Nova Galápagos."
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