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Endangered Sharks of the Galapagos

Endangered Sharks of the Galapagos
Charlotte Snook
Endangered Sharks of the Galapagos Islands - whale shark being tagged by a diver

For anyone who is lucky enough to snorkel or dive in Galapagos, the sight of a majestic shark gliding through the clear blue water is one that you never forget. The Galapagos Islands are unique in the world for the high abundance of endangered scalloped hammerhead shark, whale sharks and silk sharks. According to recent studies, the Galapagos Marine Reserve is home to the highest concentration of sharks in the world, however studies also show that the abundance of sharks has been declining.

Scalloped hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos Islands

Pressures on global shark populations

It is a critical time for sharks globally, with increasing pressures from industrial fishing, plastic pollution and the habitat loss of nursery areas for young sharks.   Although the waters around Galapagos have been protected since 1998 by the world’s second largest marine reserve, the problem is that many of the shark species found in the Galapagos Marine Reserve are migratory and so have to leave the protected waters. The minute they leave the Galapagos Marine Reserve, they are no longer protected and are highly vulnerable against their main threat – fishing.

Whilst scientists are still learning where the sharks go once they leave the Galapagos Marine Reserve, and why, what is clear is that a number of species follow the Cocos- Galapagos underwater ridge to Cocos Island National Park in Costa Rica. Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly) these waters between Galapagos and Cocos are very popular for industrial fishing fleets, including those who focus on harvesting shark fins for the Asian Market. In 2017, one Chinese vessel was found having strayed into the Galapagos waters with over 6,000 individual dead sharks, including a large number of endangered species.

Conservation Efforts by Ecuador and Costa Rica

The good news is that Costa Rica and Ecuador have been working together for many years to try and strengthen ecosystem conservation and in April 2018 the countries signed a landmark agreement to strengthen joint conservation efforts in the Galapagos Marine Reserve and the Cocos Island National Park.   A key project is the proposal to create a protected swimway between Galapagos and Cocos that would help the endangered sharks.

In order to garner the support required to make the proposed swimway a reality, scientists need to provide a strong case for the need to protect migratory species from the threats of industrial fishing. To do this they need to gather evidence about which species are found in the proposed swimway area. Much of the research will comprise of tagging sharks to see where they travel, whilst remote underwater cameras will allow a better understanding of which species are found in the proposed swimway.

Endangered Sharks of the Galapagos Islands - whale shark being tagged by a diver

Shark ‘Swimway’ Proposal

It is an ambitious project, but one that is urgently needed, and needs support and funding.    Research supported by the Galapagos Conservation Trust has already successfully resulted in the creation of a ‘shark sanctuary’ in 2016 around Darwin and Wolf Islands in the north of the Marine Reserve and now research is needed to help secure support for the proposed swimway.

Sharks have survived all five mass extinctions, including the most devastating one 250 million years ago which killed 96% of marine life.  However sharks are now seriously under threat by humans. 100 million sharks are estimated to be killed globally every year and whilst Galapagos remains one of the few places with abundant shark populations,it is important to take urgent action to ensure we try and keep it that way for future generations.

Sharks of the Galapagos - map of shark movements in the Galapagos Islands

Find out more about the Galapagos Conservation Trust’s work to help protect the endangered sharks of Galapagos and how you can support it.

All shark photos displayed courtesy of the wonderful Simon J Pierce Photography.