Galapagos wants to hook fishermen on new career
Marine reserve wants them to turn to tourism
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 lobsters - 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 been damaged 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 and marine iguanas, draw more than 150,000 tourists a year to the Ecuadorean islands.
They were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 for the unique animal and plant species and added in 2007 to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's list of sites in danger from environmental threats. Although the fishing industry is still the second-most lucrative in the Galapagos, it is far behind tourism - bringing about $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 cooperative, 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 son, Luis Jr., 12, trolls with lures on fishing expeditions that can last up to four days.
He fishes in a fiberglass boat named the "Eagle Ray," one of many small vessels called fibras, and has no money to invest in modern equipment. His on-board refrigeration, for example, is an ice chest he fills in the morning before he leaves, limiting the size of fresh catches. Cooperative members see the regulations on their industry as unnecessarily strict. But overfishing also has made it hard for them to make a living.
The national park officials see an alternative business for the fishermen in tourism, either in fishing trips showing visitors their artesian methods or in day trips to go snorkeling or hiking.
Bonilla says he can't make money on the first option, and the second is too expensive, requiring life jackets, canopies, and other equipment.