The Galapagos National Park announced last week that the Ecuadorian government will open sea cucumber fishing in the Galapagos Islands beginning on June 25th for 50 days or two million sea cucumbers, whichever comes first. This news is a disappointment to many conservationists in the islands and means a lot more work for Dr. Idrovo and his treatment of decompressed fishermen.
In 1991, after sea cucumbers had been depleted from the continental Ecuadorian coast, an uncontrolled sea cucumber fishery began in Galapagos. Harvest rates during this time were reputedly 70,000 to 110,000 sea cucumbers daily with individual divers fetching up to 500 sea cucumbers per day. Recognizing the importance of protecting Galapagos resources, the fishery, including processing and trade, was officially closed by Presidential Decree in August 1992. Lacking enforcement, fishing nevertheless continued, as testified to by the discovery of camps and processing plants throughout 1993 and 1994.
In 1994, an experimental sea cucumber season was introduced to allow for limited opening of the fishery for three months with a catch limit of 550,000 sea cucumbers. In the first two months, fishermen far exceeded quotas and took more than five million sea cucumbers; subsequently, the fishery was indefinitely banned. Despite the moratorium, there is marked evidence of rigorous sea cucumber fishing throughout the 1990s.
In 1999, after violent debates and negotiation with fishermen, the fishery for sea cucumbers was again reopened. That season, there were 795 fishermen and a recorded 4,401,657 sea cucumbers exported. In areas where the fishery was opened, sea cucumber populations suffered a reported 77 percent decline. In 2001, fixed dates, minimum size restrictions, and a maximum catch quota of four million sea cucumbers were included as part of the fishery. Fishermen caught only 67% of the established quota. After a disappointing 2001 season as well as an elimination of fishing quotas, preliminary 2002 reports by Charles Darwin Research Station established total capture at 8,301,449 cucumbers.
Due to political pressure from the fishermen, the sea cucumber fishery has continued to stay open year after year. Fishermen show an immense distaste for any regulatory measure. In the past, fisherman have killed or mutilated Galapagos tortoises and sea lions when the Ecuadorian government threatened to close a fishery. In 1995, after prohibitive legislation passed, several fishermen armed with clubs and machetes took Charles Darwin Station researchers and their families hostage in protest.
In 2004, I wrote a small article about the crowds of angry fishermen that called for higher sea cucumber quotas, then smashed Park windows, threw Molotov cocktails at police and barricaded the entrance to the National Park and Charles Darwin Research Station offices (see photo). This year, the fishermen did march at the Galapagos National Park headquarters but did not have to use violence to get what they wanted. I suppose their reputation preceded them.