Fisherman, Conservationists at Odds in Galapagos

Fishermen cut up their daily catch in San Cristobal's port of Baquerizo Moreno.

Fishermen cut up their daily catch in San Cristobal's port of Baquerizo Moreno. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR

In the Galapagos Islands, conservationists say marine life is being depleted while fishermen say their livelihoods are at stake. But a boost in tourism may provide a compromise.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The unique marine life of the Galapagos Islands is at the heart of a deep conflict. Conservationists say that the Galapagos are threatened by overfishing. Fishermen say their livelihoods are at stake. Both sides agree that tourism may provide a way out of the deadlock. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has the third of four reports on the Galapagos Islands.

(Soundbite of cutting)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

On their small wooden boat, three fishermen cut up their catch for the day. A sea lion and a ring of pelicans try to snatch at any off-cuts. Beyond them on the dock, a group of poor residents waits to buy the fish heads which are sold cheap. Among the fishermen is Jefferson Galarsan. He's a 25-year-old Galapageno whose father is also a fisherman on these islands, a tradition that is passed on for many generations among some of them.

Mr. JEFFERSON GALARSAN: (Through Translator) We've been out since 4 AM. We've caught snapper, wahoo and a small cod. The fishing is pretty low for this time of year.

(Soundbite of water)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Around a thousand Galapagos fishermen are allowed to work in the Galapagos Marine Reserve, one of the largest in the world. The reserve was created in 1998 to protect the thousands of marine plants and animals that live in the unique waters surrounding the islands which is fed a confluence of warm and cold currents. Charles Darwin remarked on the variety of life in archipelago in his book "The Voyage of the Beagle." He wrote of the Galapagos that inspired his theory of evolution, `It is most striking to be surrounded by new birds, new reptiles, new shells, new insects, new plants.'

But conservationists say that the resources of the reserve are being abused. The harvesting of sea cucumbers and lobsters have left those populations severely depleted and as Galarsan notes, regular fish staples are down, too. There's also a lucrative illegal trade in shark fins for the Asian market. Galarsan and other fishermen, though, are unconvinced that there's a problem.

Mr. GALARSAN: (Through Translator) The conservationist always looks out for his own interest. That's the way it's always been. They don't want us to keep on fishing. They want the fishing sector to disappear, but we will never disappear, never.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That mistrust has been backed by action in the past. When restrictions have been put in place, fishermen have repeatedly taken over the main conservation and research body on the islands, the Charles Darwin Research Station. In one case, they even kidnapped a group of endangered baby tortoises and held them for ransom.

(Soundbite of sea lion)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: On the beaches surrounding the port, in the island of San Cristobal, sea lions frolic in the afternoon sun. Standing nearby, the head of the fishing cooperative here, Francisco Huanmanquishpe, says that if conservationists want fishermen to stop fishing, they must provide alternatives.

Mr. FRANCISCO HUANMANQUISHPE: (Through Translator) It is not solution for them to say, `Let's take the people out of the fishing sector.' If they want to help us to change activities, they have to give us technical assistance. They have to give us financing. And we're still waiting for that. If the conservationists worry about conservation here in the Galapagos, they should also worry about the human being.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a charge that's echoed by politicians here who are beholden to the powerful fishing lobby. They point to conservation projects that cost millions of dollars and say conservationists exaggerate problems to get funding.

The new head of the Charles Darwin Research Station is Graham Watkins. He admits that conservation has been the top priority in the past.

Mr. GRAHAM WATKINS (Charles Darwin Research Station): And the station and the foundation in general has been very focused on developing systems for the conservation of Galapagos. It would be remarkably successful, but one has to realize what's going on outside. I mean, the change in population has been absolutely phenomenal. It's one of the highest growth rates in population in the world. The world outside of the station has changed, and now the station has to catch up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The objective now is to move those in the fishing sector into tourism, but most of the hundred 100,000 tourists who came to the islands last year stay on chartered yachts that are controlled by mainland providers. Very little money trickles down to the locals, some of whom would like to see large cruise ships and big resorts built. That in turn would mean more people coming to the islands which would threaten the very ecosystem tourists come to see. The population in the Galapagos has already nearly doubled in the past five years to almost 30,000 people. Watkins says there is an alternative.

Mr. WATKINS: If we can change the model of tourism that we have here towards a model that is more supportive of local communities but also is not a growth industry, you're talking about an industry that can diversify but needs to really slow down or stop its growth, then you can actually create a sustainable system here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That hasn't happened yet, and back at the docks, fisherman Francisco Huanmanquishpe warns of more trouble to come.

Mr. HUANMANQUISHPE: (Through Translator) We have reached the end of our rope. We are no longer going to accept that any international organization or conservation group interferes in what we have to do in our own house. We have exhausted dialogue. We have participated but we have not gotten any alternatives.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At a recent meeting to discuss limits on sea cucumber harvesting, the fishermen threatened to shut down the airport which is the only point of entry for tourists to the island. The crisis was averted because the fishermen's demands of no new limits were met. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: Photos and maps of the Galapagos Islands are at npr.org.

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