Patrolling Paradise: The Evolution of Enforcement in the Galapagos



Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

The challenge

The Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR) is the fourth-largest marine reserve in the world at approximately 133,000 km2. The GMR was formally created in 1998 via the Special Law for the Sustainable Development and Conservation of the Province of Galapagos (LOREG) and extends 40 nautical miles from its baseline around the islands. The islands have unique geographic and geological characteristics and are situated at the intersection of four oceanic currents. This helped produce the unique biodiversity that is found there today, earning them the reputation of a ‘living laboratory of evolution’ among scientists and researchers. Today, the combination of growing tourism and fishing industries, which support the livelihoods of the islands’ inhabitants, also threatens their isolation and biodiversity.

The Galapagos Marine Reserve and Respective Economic Exclusive Zone. Photo © Google Earth

The sheer size of the marine reserve, a thriving year-round population of 28,000 inhabitants, and over 200,000 tourists a year pose numerous challenges to the conservation of the archipelago. The primary conservation and management challenges facing the Galapagos marine environment are illustrated by the following:

  • The artisanal fishing sector that resides within the archipelago includes 1,000 fishers and a total of 355 vessels. Key fisheries include lobster, sea cucumber, tuna, and several species of whitefish.
  • The national fishing fleet is the largest tuna fleet in the South Pacific. Key fisheries include tuna and whitefish.
  • International fishing vessels come from Colombia and Costa Rica. Key fisheries include tuna, sharks, and whitefish.
  • 85 liveaboards and more than 20 day-tour and inter-island vessels circulate throughout the archipelago.
  • Cargo and petroleum tankers arrive weekly to three key ports.

Seventeen years after the establishment of the GMR, important advances in fisheries regulations and enforcement have been made in terms of patrol fleet size, infrastructure, human resources, and institutional development. The management of marine resources, however, is still a complicated matter, especially due to the constant pressure placed on resources and the need for technical and human coordination in the maintenance of the patrol fleet.

Actions taken

WildAid, in cooperation with partners, is working to make the GMR one of the best-protected marine areas in the developing world. Their ongoing project aims to stop illegal fishing and improve the fisheries management capacity of the Galapagos National Park Service (GNPS). Effective management of the GMR cannot succeed without effective law enforcement and compliance efforts. There is no one ‘silver bullet’ approach to monitoring. WildAid has strengthened the surveillance and interdiction capacity of the GNPS by introducing cutting-edge technology systems while ensuring fast response capacity to intercept illegal fishers once they are identified by the system. The aim is to institutionalize the operation of these systems and establish core operating procedures for all departments involved in the control and vigilance of the GMR.

Patrol Asset Accumulation
Prior to 1998 and the promulgation of LOREG, the Galapagos National Park Service (GNPS) focused only on the management of terrestrial areas and did not have capacity for marine enforcement. It is also important to note that prior to the LOREG, the Ecuadorian tuna fleet had complete access to the archipelago, while after 1998 the industrial fleet no longer had access to one of their primary fishing grounds. Since the creation of the GMR in 1998, initial enforcement efforts focused on the procurement of patrol vessels and equipment, the construction of a marine resources office, and the training of marine park wardens. By 2005, the GNPS procured and received numerous donations for an impressive list of assets: 11 patrol vessels, one floating base, a terrestrial base, and a four-seat patrol plane. GNPS maintenance capacity was not able to keep pace with asset acquisitions, and by 2006 most vessels were in disrepair. The asset accumulation also resulted in more personnel, fuel, lubricants, and per diems required to maintain operations. In order to address some of these issues, WildAid and Conservation International (CI) focused on developing the local maintenance capacity of the GNPS fleet to ensure uninterrupted patrolling of the GMR and on supplying technology to help reduce surveillance costs. Examples of the technologies employed are described below.

Technology Options for Surveillance and Interdiction

opens in a new windowCollaborative monitoring systems require active location transceivers on board of vessels. Location messages include information such as: vessel name, latitude, longitude, course, and speed. A specific regulatory law must be promulgated to obligate vessel owners to purchase and activate on-board transceivers. If the location device is disconnected, the shore stations and control centers will not see the vessel’s position. As law violators tend to deactivate transceivers, regulations must consider stiff penalties for opportunistic tampering by stakeholders. A major drawback of these systems is that they will not detect fishers from other areas or countries which do not employ transceivers.

In 2009, WildAid helped implement a Satellite Vessel Monitoring System (SVMS) to track the exact position and speed of all large vessels traveling within the reserve on an hourly basis. In the first year, 32 vessels were apprehended using SVMS and the Rapid Response Patrol Fleet. Photo © WildAid

  • Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS) for Monitoring the National Commercial Fleet. WildAid and partners worked with the Navy and environmental authorities to promulgate a law in March 2009 requiring all vessels above 20 GT to use VMS. Stiff penalties were included for transceiver deactivation and violators lost access to subsidized fuel. VMS transceiver signal frequency was set to hourly for Ecuadorian vessels, while the International Maritime Organization (IMO) standard is 6 hours. The vessel owners were required to pay for the monthly service. This was a 3-year process initiated in 2006, and both the Navy and the GNPS shared access to data and received control centers to monitor vessel movement.
  • Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) for Monitoring Commercial and Artisanal Vessels. Shore-based infrastructure supporting AIS was also donated and installed throughout the archipelago in 2012; however, it has been largely ineffective as there is no legislation to date mandating the use of AIS transceivers.

opens in a new windowNon-collaborative monitoring systems are the best equipment option when detecting vessels that are intentionally carrying out illegal activities in specific geographic areas or in the absence of collaborative systems. Systems are often layered to make up for the deficiencies of one particular technology by using the strengths of another. For example, radar systems often complement AIS systems in order to detect foreign vessels or vessels that have intentionally deactivated their transceivers.

  • Patrol Plane for the Surveillance of Commercial and Artisanal Vessels. Given the vast expanse of the GMR, the GNPS procured a four-seat airplane with the help of USAID. Given the high cost of vessel operations, the patrol plane was first thought to be an excellent surveillance tool; however, over time it has become quite expensive, as all parts must be imported and the plane requires insurance, special fuel, a full-time mechanic, and pilot. This has also been complicated by the fact that the plane manufacturer shut down in 2009.
  • Vigilance Posts for Monitoring Artisanal Sea Cucumber and Lobster Fisheries. Given that many of these highly productive fisheries are concentrated in specific areas, the GNPS set up vigilance posts at key sites where fishing pressure is strongest. The physical presence of park rangers with binoculars and VHF marine radios has been the most effective system for specific geographic areas.
  • High Power Video Cameras and Radars for the Surveillance of all Vessel Activity at Ports. WildAid, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and CI completed the installation of harbor surveillance radars and video cameras at three key ports in November 2013. The additional sensors are extremely useful tools for both GNPS and Coast Guard authorities in the enforcement of local fishing, tourism, and maritime trafficking regulations. The cameras have been especially helpful for infractions such as fuel contraband, illegal fishing, overloaded inter-island passenger boats, and the cleaning of fish at port among others. Both the port captain and the GNPS control center coordinate with a staffed zodiac in the bay, which is able to respond swiftly as violations are identified. The radar is specifically useful for identifying vessels entering and leaving the bays with illegal contraband and with location transceivers deliberately turned off.

Institutionalizing Operating Procedures and the Maintenance of Vessels
WildAid and partners aim to institutionalize the operation of these systems and establish core operating procedures for all departments involved in the control and vigilance of the GMR. This is very important because the technology and the systems are only as useful as those who are trained to operate and maintain them. Activities include:

  • Developing control center, patrol, and boarding standard operating protocols with the GNPS Marine Resource Department.
  • Providing technical support to the GNPS IT Department for the development of software to systematize all field patrolling activities and provide the information to the Maintenance Department. The software generates reports with respect to vessel hours navigated, crew hours, patrol tracks, findings, spare parts required, and follow-up on maintenance orders.
  • Establishing a baseline for the state of the patrol fleet that includes operational and maintenance costs. Based on this information, the GNPS began prioritizing its maintenance strategy, additionally carrying out periodic third party technical audits to monitor maintenance plan execution.
  • Periodic training programs on engine and electrical maintenance for personnel operating the vessels of the park service.
  • Developing a protocol for handling each of the environmental and constitutional criminal proceedings carried out by the GNPS legal department in all their stages to expedite the handling of GMR administrative and criminal cases. Given high levels of lawyer turnover with the GNPS, the database and protocols are key in helping maintain continuity and ensuring the rule of law.

How successful has it been?

The GNPS currently possesses one of the most sophisticated electronic monitoring systems in the developing world and a fleet of fast response vessels to intercept illegal fishers once they are identified by the system. However, improvement has not been linear. Given the political nature of the GNPS, periods of progress have been rolled back due to turnover of directors and key employees. Despite these setbacks, the enforcement of the GMR has improved substantially. As shown on the map, most commercial fishing vessels respect the 40 nautical mile marine reserve. There is not full compliance, however, as some commercial fishers circumvent satellite detection by towing small fiberglass vessels so they can enter the GMR undetected. Regardless of all the technological innovations, vessels are still needed for interdiction. WildAid and partners continue to work with the GNPS to improve vessel readiness, optimize resource allocation, and institutionalize key protocols for efficient operations. Eventually, the GNPS will possess robust systems and highly trained personnel to execute an effective compliance program that ensures the sustainable harvesting of marine resources.

30 Day Time Lapse the Galapagos Marine Reserve as Seen from the GNPS Control Center. Photo © GNPS

30 Day Time Lapse Image of the Galapagos Marine Reserve as Seen from the GNPS Control Center. Photo © GNPS

Lessons learned and recommendations

  • Political will, particularly in terms of the enforcement of laws and regulations by authorities, is the most important factor for enforcing regulations and MPA management. Political will can come from many sources, such as the public, law makers, NGOs, the authorities, and other stakeholders.
  • Without appropriate legislation, collaborative system technology is largely ineffective for vessel monitoring. In addition, there must be penalties/incentives for proper use and to avoid deactivation.
  • All asset acquisitions must be performance driven and not dictated by donors. The GNPS received patrol vessels and other assets from donors who had the best of intentions; however, their maintenance proved too costly and resulted in a drain on their operating budget.
  • Technology is only a tool. Institutional capacity and human resources must be invested in to operate and maintain the systems and ultimately enforce rules and regulations.
  • Given high staff turnover, the elaboration of standard operating protocols for key maritime vigilance processes is crucial for ensuring continuity and preventing informal interpretations of rules and regulations.
  • The elaboration of simple measures such as vessel logs, checklists, and job aides help ensure predictive maintenance vs. costly corrective repairs.
  • The physical presence of an authority (boats in the water) still remains one of the best deterrents to illegal fishing within the GMR.

Funding summary

WildAid: $2M
Conservation International: $2M
World Wildlife Fund and Sea Shepherd: $2.5M
USAID: $1.5M

Lead organizations

opens in a new windowWildAid
opens in a new windowConservation International
opens in a new windowWorld Wildlife Fund


Galapagos National Park Service (GNPS)
Ecuadorian Navy


opens in a new windowWildAid Marine Protection

This case study was provided by WildAid. For further information please contact: Marcel Bigue at bigue@wildaid.orgcreate new email or opens in a new windowclick here.

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