Court Upholds Galapagos Park's Right to Set Fishing Limits

QUITO, Ecuador, July 29, 2004 (ENS) - Ecuador's highest court has upheld limits on the harvesting of sea cucumbers in a victory for conservationists and a blow to fishermen fighting to make a living from the dwindling marine species, prized as a delicacy in Asian markets.

The Constitutional Tribunal reversed a lower court ruling that struck down limits on the take of sea cucumbers from the Galapagos Islands. The fishermen won the injunction from a local judge who ruled that the limits were unfair and impeded the ability of the fishermen to make a living.

But when the local judge struck down the limits, he struck down the fishery altogether.

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A sea cucumber in the Galapagos Islands (Photo courtesy Go2Galapagos)
The conflict began in May and was appeased when a limit of four million sea cucumbers was granted to the fishermen. But a confrontation between the fishermen and the authorities erupted again in early June.

Fishermen occupied the offices of the Galapagos National Park. They held hostages, disrupted the tourist industry and threatened to kill the giant tortoises unless they were allowed a fishery with no limits on sea cucumbers.

But the fishermen created a problem for themselves when they challenged the National Park on the right to set limits on marine resources. The fishermen argued that their right to fish was a stronger right than the rights of the National Park to impose conservation limits.

The local judge granted them the injunction they sought, but the fishery could not proceed without official guidelines and policy. The fishermen were not allowed to even take the four million that had been granted to them in May because that quota had been struck down along with the entire structure of regulations.

In the meantime the Galapagos National Park and the Environment Ministry of Ecuador appealed the injunction to the nation’s Constitutional Tribunal.

The high court ruled that since the Galapagos Islands are protected as a marine reserve, the authorities were correct to consider “aspects related to protecting biodiversity and the environment” when setting limits for fishing, the Tribunal said in its July 22 ruling,

The ruling bolstered a participatory decisionmaking forum designed to give island residents a say in policy. Fishermen had tried to circumvent this forum by taking their claim to court. Now they must resume talks within this forum in order to help draft policy.

“This is a great victory for conservation in the Galapagos,” said Captain Paul Watson, founder and president of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, whose ship, the Sirenian, is on permanent patrol in the Galapagos Marine Reserve.


Captain Paul Watson (2nd from left) and crew aboard the Sirenian (Photo courtesy Sea Shepherd)
It is now too late in the year for the fishermen to take any sea cucumbers, as the season runs through June and July. Park authorities have banned sea cucumber fishing for 2005 and 2006 in an effort to protect the species in the islands and give it a chance to recover from overfishing.

Edwin Naula, the director of Galapagos National Park, said the high court's decision was good for the park because it put in place a legal management framework, and he said the fishermen have won as well.

Environmental authorities and fishermen are expected to meet shortly to discuss setting new dates for sea cucumber fishing as the original two month season ended last week.

Still the Galapagos population of about 20,000 is divided between those who are trying to feed their families on fishing and those who depend on the tourist trade. The fishermen are angry at environmentalists who are striving to protect from overdevelopment the world-famous archipelago where British naturalist Charles Darwin gathered evidence for his understanding of evolution.

Watson is concerned that an increasing number of people are moving to the Galapagos islands from the mainland. “The islands are attracting fishermen from Ecuador who have already depleted costal mainland fisheries. The rate of growth in the Galapagos is escalating. Development is everywhere," Watson said.

"The Galapagos National Park is now the last stand," he said. "If we can’t save these profoundly unique and treasured islands from being trod upon and destroyed by humanity, we won’t be able to save anything in this world from over exploitation by the sheer weight of human numbers.”

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is working to raise funds and material to continue to support the work of the Galapagos National Park rangers in their efforts to police the large marine reserve around these islands located 625 miles west of the Ecuadorian coast.