In Galápagos, lobster fishers make unlikely — but effective — conservationists

Spiny lobsters

Spiny lobsters at market in Galápagos. (© Molly Bergen)

In Galápagos, lobster fishers make unlikely — but effective — conservationists

For tourists visiting Puerto Ayora, the cobblestoned town where most human residents of the Galápagos Islands live, lunch at the tiny open-air fish market on the harbor is a unique treat. As sea lions and pelicans beg for fish scraps at the feet of the fishmongers chopping and bagging the day’s catch, diners point at the seafood they want, and someone tosses it on the grill.

Many choose a local specialty: red or green spiny lobster, whose live specimens wait on the pavement (often under the watchful eye of a fisher’s child) until they are sold. Few realize how close these species recently came to being wiped out from the Galápagos — a disappearance that could have caused a chain reaction across the islands’ spectacular yet fragile ecosystems.

No lobsters, no iguanas

Since the Galápagos Marine Reserve was created in 1998, no commercial fishing has been allowed within its borders. However, the roughly 1,000 small-scale fishers living in the islands’ three towns are permitted to fish within most of the reserve. Despite this relatively small fishing population, decades of unsustainable fishing within those areas led to plunging populations of several species, including sea cucumbers and lobsters. One reason for the lobster decline? Most fishers caught them with spears, which meant that by the time they realized the lobster was too small to be worth catching, the crustacean was already dead.

Maintaining the local lobster population isn’t important just to feed people and bring in income for fishers; it also helps keep the food web intact. Lobsters eat sea urchins, which compete with one of the Galápagos’s most famous species, found nowhere else on Earth — the marine iguana — for their main food source: seaweed. “We can say that, more lobsters means more marine iguanas,” explains Jerson Moreno, fishing specialist on Conservation International’s (CI) Galápagos team. “And that’s good news for tourism, which employs 40 percent of the islands’ residents.”

Fishermen sorting lobsters

Fishermen sorting live red spiny lobster at the fish market in Puerto Ayora, the largest town in Galápagos Islands. (© Molly Bergen)

Fishing less, but boosting income

In order to boost lobster numbers, CI had to get local fishers to comply with existing management measures. Previous efforts by the government to regulate the overfished sea cucumber fishery had led to animosity among some fishers, who took out their frustrations on the giant tortoises that are among the islands’ biggest tourist attractions.

To build support for existing regulations in the lobster fishery, CI, the park authorities and other partners began conducting focus groups with fishers to better understand their concerns. The organizers brought in lobster fishers from Mexico and mainland Ecuador to show how limits to fishing had improved the health — and yields — of their own fisheries, and to outline how these regulations could work in the Galápagos.

After prolonged discussions, here’s what the group came up with: Moving forward, lobsters could only be caught in certain months. Even during those months, only lobsters above a certain size — and excluding females with eggs — could be caught. In addition, catching live lobsters by hand was encouraged in order to better control catch size.

Next, CI teamed up with a fishing cooperative to spearhead a social marketing campaign to teach fishermen, residents and tourists the importance of supporting the new regulations. From educational murals to a cooking contest to a now-annual Galápagos Lobster Festival, the campaign urged customers to consume lobster only during open-season months. It also encouraged them to order the whole lobster rather than just the tail; this enables fishers to earn three times as much income from each individual animal and reduces their need to catch more lobsters. Selling whole live lobsters locally (versus shipping frozen lobster tail to mainland Ecuador) also allows cuts out middlemen and enables fishers to keep more of their profits.

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The recovery

After 20 years of regulation and slowly shifting attitudes, progress is being made. Populations of two species, red and green lobster, have bounced back; currently, lobster is among the islands’ most lucrative fisheries, with a gross income of more than US$ 2 million. (Catches in recent years have surged not due to overfishing, but because the species was more prevalent.)

Though the lobster project is the only species-specific management in place in the Galápagos, CI aims to replicate its success there with a new mini-campaign around langostinos — a species of shellfish similar to lobsters and a popular menu item in Ecuador. CI and partners are also finalizing a fishery certification system in the islands that will give consumers greater certainty that their seafood was caught sustainably.

By investing in a sustainable fishery now, Galápagos residents are helping to sustain one of the planet’s most unique ecosystems — and the economy that thrives on it.

Molly Bergen was formerly the senior managing editor of Human Nature.

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