Expedition to the Galápagos to protect international waters

Greenpeace's Arctic Sunrise ship on a scientific mission to the well-known Ecuadorian archipelago to ask for the extension of the marine protected area

A scientific mission to protect the world's oceans
Scientist Paola Sangolqui of the Jocotoco Conservation Foundation takes environmental DNA samples in international waters between the Galápagos and Ecuador (Photo: Tomás Munita/Greenpeace)

In these hours the ship Arctic Sunrise of Greenpeace is on its way to Colombia, after a six-week expedition at Galápagos Islands. The mission to the Colombo Archipelago began with the aim of demonstrating the importance of protecting the seas and oceans and loudly requesting the ratification of the Global Oceans Treaty adopted by the UN and the extension of the Galápagos Marine Reserve.

The waters surrounding the protected natural area, in fact, are crossed by an army of industrial fishing vessels which seriously endangers marine habitats in the vicinity of the archipelago and require immediate protection. Therefore, Greenpeace argues, ocean protection cannot be limited to national waters: it is necessary to establish one new protected area on the high seas.

UN Ocean Treaty: Chile is the first country to sign
The ocean's ambassador whales at the UN: the Maori proposal

Galápagos, marine protected area needs to be extended
The Galápagos Islands are today considered a living museum of biodiversity, and are almost entirely a natural park: here Charles Darwin was inspired by the theory of evolution (Photo: MM/Wikipedia)

Galápagos, a living laboratory now under pressure

Le Galápagos Islands they are known for their endemic species: giant tortoises, land cormorants, marine iguanas and over 500 species of plants that have evolved to adapt to the different habitats of the emerged lands of the archipelago. In this "small world" reached around 1835 aboard the brig HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin he found inspiration for the theory of evolution by observing the adaptation of turtles and birds.

In 1959, on the centenary of Darwin's work, Ecuador declared the entire archipelago national park, except for the few inhabited areas, which in those years constituted less than 3 percent of the emerged land. In 1979 theUNESCO declared the Galápagos Islands World Heritage Site: Since then, the Pacific archipelago has been considered a kind of living museum of biodiversity.

Forty years later, however, the human presence on the islands it has become more invasive: today they live approximately there 30mila people, to which must be added the 170 thousand tourists who visit the Colombo Archipelago every year. A situation that pushed the Ecuadorian government to double the entrance fee for the Galápagos to discourage mass tourism by focusing resources on conservation.

Moving away from the mainland, however, the situation becomes more grim. THE seas surrounding the archipelago they are not protected: “Although the Ecuadorian government created a marine protected area around the Galápagos in 1998 that extends for approximately 133.000 square kilometers”, explains Greenpeace, “outside this Marine Reserve the ocean is not protected”. Beyond national borders, the sea "is furrowed by industrial fishing vessels which are seriously endangering life in the area".

Does the Marine Sanctuary in the heart of the Pacific threaten fishing?
There is a coral highway in the heart of the Indian Ocean

Mission to the Galápagos to protect international waters
The Greenpeace expedition to the Galápagos Islands investigated the biodiversity of the waters around the nature reserve, which require immediate protection (Photo: Tomás Munita/Greenpeace)

The laudable Greenpeace expedition off the coast of Ecuador

The ship Arctic Sunrise by Greenpeace he recently concluded his expedition to the Galápagos Islands. During the six-week trip, a team of scientists from the Jocotoco Conservation Foundation, Charles Darwin Foundation, Galapagos Science Center and MigraMar, together with rangers from the Galápagos National Park, studied the marine habitats near the protected area.

Through the use of ROVs and BRUVS (stations that attract animals through bait to allow them to be filmed under water), Greenpeace and its partners have been studying the Seamounts, the underwater mountains found both inside and outside the Marine Reserve of Galápagos, and they carried out some environmental DNA sampling to test the presence and variety of marine species.

The aim of the investigations is to demonstrate the importance of protecting seas and oceans, documenting the success achieved in Galápagos Marine Reserve and in marine habitats near the archipelago. The data collected by scientists will serve to support the request establish a new marine protected area located on the high seas, contiguous to that already existing around the archipelago. In fact, there are unprotected areas seriously threatened by industrial fishing.

Fishing kills more and more sharks: the result of the shocking study
Overfishing, in the Atlantic there is a risk of the collapse of entire fish stocks

Greenpeace in the Galápagos for the protection of the high seas
The Greenpeace expedition to the Galápagos Islands recently concluded with one objective: to request the urgent ratification of the Global Oceans Treaty (Photo: Lewis Burnett/Greenpeace)

Global Oceans Treaty: ratification still far away

Greenpeace's goal is to support the urgent ratification of the Ocean Protection Treaty approved a year ago at the United Nations, which will allow the establishment of marine sanctuaries in international waters with the aim of placing the 30 percent of the oceans of the world by 2030.

The document, which requires ratification by 60 countries to come into force, has so far gathered momentum Chile's formal accession, Palau e Seychelles. The road is still long: "The Galápagos Marine Reserve represents one of the best examples of marine protection currently underway. But it is still an exception, on a planet where just 3% of the oceans are fully or efficiently protected", explains Ruth Ramos of the Greenpeace Protect the Oceans campaign, on board the Arctic Sunrise.

"To the east of the Reserve is the marine corridor of the eastern tropical Pacific”, explains Ramos, “a vast portion of ocean currently under the jurisdiction of no state and part of an "underwater highway" important for several species that require particular protection, such as sharks and sea turtles".

This is why it is essential to accelerate the pace of ratification of the document: “The Ocean Treaty offers us the opportunity to change this situation, but it needs to be signed into law as soon as possible with ratification by at least 60 countries”, concludes Ramos.

An unpublished Atlas of Marine Habitats for the protection of the oceans
WSense, this is how the Internet of Things reaches the depths of the sea

Ratification of the Oceans Treaty is urgent: Greenpeace's mission
Paola Sangolqui (Jocotoco Conservation Foundation) releases a BRUVS from the Arctic Sunrise into the international waters of the Pacific Ocean (Photo: Tomás Munita/Greenpeace)

Save migratory species by protecting international waters

Among the investigations carried out by scientists on board Arctic Sunrise, there is the monitoring of shark migratory routes in the Reserve and in the waters that surround it. A recent report from the UN Convention on Migratory Species highlights that one in five migratory species is a risk of extinction. And at sea the situation is particularly serious: 97 percent of the 58 fish species listed in the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) are at high risk of extinction, and this includes sharks, rays and sturgeon.

To put these animals at risk, first of all, the industrial fishing in international waters, often hidden under the radar anonymity: one very recent study reveals that about the 75 percent of fishing vessels operating in the world's seas is invisible. And around the Galápagos Marine Reserve, Greenpeace points out, the presence of ghost ships is massive.

An increasingly looming danger for iconic habitats and species of the archipelago, such as whale shark: those of the Galápagos are among the largest in the world, and the specimens living in the Reserve are 99 percent adult females.

In the protected waters they are safe, but just outside the invisible borders of the Reserve they await them vast fleets of fishing boats, which do not fail to accidentally catch too vulnerable species such as sharks, rays and cetaceans. "It's clear that we need more marine reserves in international waters, where these magnificent creatures migrate, and we need them now”, explains Greenpeace.

Ghost ships: that silent explosion of the Blue Economy
Blue Hole: the drama of wild fishing in the contested sea

A scientific mission to protect the world's oceans
A Great Blue Heron (Ardea Herodias) and Las Bachas, on the island of Baltra: the protection of migratory species, especially at sea, requires the ratification of the Global Oceans Treaty (Photo: Diego Delso/Wikipedia)