Environment

How the Galapagos Islands Saved the Endangered Spiny Lobster

Conservationists realised the lobster is central to protecting the islands' major asset, the marine iguana

10.05.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo by serena_tang on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND
Photo by serena_tang on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

The world’s oceans are in a bad way. An estimated 13 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the water each year, choking and entangling turtles, birds and whales. Raw sewage dumping is destroying coral populations and poisoning off-shore habitats. Crucial wetlands have drowned, the oceans have become too acidic, and rampant commercial fishing is threatening  countless species with extinction.

Although protected from commercial fishing since the late 1990s, the idyllic – yet increasingly overburdened – Galapagos islands have been faced by an overfishing problem of their own in recent years. Unsustainable practices by the 1,000 or so fishers permitted to operate locally have led to a collapse in the population of spiny lobsters, a red-tailed, gold-flecked crustacean that was once so abundant that they could be scooped out of tidal pools.

Aside from an obvious interest in biodiversity, the importance of protecting the lobsters was drawn from their role in wider ecosystem. Spiny lobsters eat sea urchins, which mostly feed on seaweed. And seaweed happens to be the main foodstuff of marine iguanas, an animal that only exists on the islands and has emerged as a phenomenal tourist attraction. Without spiny lobsters, conservationists realised, the continued survival of one of the Galapagos’ biggest natural treasures would be at risk.

The first thing the island did was work out why the lobster populations were being depleted. According to Human Nature, a conservation blog, most fisherman were found to catch lobsters with spears – meaning the animals were killed even if they were later deemed too small to be of use. In addition, they were caught too often, sometimes during gestation periods, preventing nature from replenishing numbers fast enough.

But the local Government knew it had to introduce limits with caution. Earlier attempts to control fishing of the sea cucumber, another threatened resource, were disastrous, with fishers ransacking research stations and taking giant tortoises hostage in protest.

Still, the islands pressed ahead, introducing a tough new fishing regime. Lobster season would run from September to December each year, with anyone caught selling or fishing the crustacean outside of the period hit with huge fines and bans. One tourist boat, the Celebrity Xpedition vessel, had its licence to operate temporarily revoked for flouting the rules and engaging in illegal lobster catching.

An education campaign and street-wide parades were launched to encourage visitors to eat the entirety of the lobsters and for fishers to sell the lobsters whole. Research found these measures improved well-being among local communities, built from a greater focus on the local market and a tripling in the price of sale for a whole lobster.

In addition, a local gastronomy school teamed up with the Minister of Education and tourism officials to launch an an annual event, The Galapagos Lobster Festival, which teaches new ways to prepare and consume the crustacean.

As a result of the interventions, a combination of controls and education, populations of spiny lobsters in the Galapagos have recovered, becoming a sustainable industry worth around $2m per year – and contributing to the protection of a unique and diverse ecosystem.

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Tags: fishing, ocean

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