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The Galápagos

Overview

Six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador lie the volcanic islands of the Galápagos, famous for a wealth of unique plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. The Galápagos Islands were the source of Darwin’s theory of evolution and remain a priceless living laboratory for scientists today.

  • Continent
    South America
  • Species
    Sea lion, Galapagos penguin, Giant tortoise, Great white shark, Leatherback turtle, Sei whale

Illegal fishing, non-native species and the demands of more than 160,000 tourists each year threaten this irreplaceable ecosystem and the people who depend on it for their food and livelihoods. WWF spearheaded conservation efforts in the Galápagos, including funding the construction of the Charles Darwin Research Station. For more than 50 years we have played an integral role in protecting nature in the Galápagos and with our partners we continue our ambitious conservation work which is critical to every human, plant and animal on the islands.

In 1998, the Ecuadorian government enacted the Galápagos Special Law, a legal framework to protect the Galápagos, and created the Galápagos Marine Reserve. WWF supported its establishment and continues to be involved in the management process that helps the reserve succeed.

WWF develops a solar-powered boat for the Galápagos

Using an existing boat—which the Park had confiscated from an illegal fishing operation—WWF and the Galápagos National Park worked to transform it into an alternative energy vessel.

solar boat

Species

Waved albatross

Waved albatross are the largest birds in the Galápagos. Here they are engaged in a lengthy, noisy and complex courtship ritual.

The sheer number and variety of wildlife both on land and in the water of the Galápagos is quite remarkable. Because of the islands’ isolation and remoteness, many of these species are found only in the Galápagos and have not changed much since prehistoric times. The Galápagos’ famous marine iguanas, albatross and giant tortoises continue to amaze scientists and delight tourists. Many unique species occur in great concentrations. For example, marine iguanas bask on the beaches by the hundreds, and on certain islands hundreds of birds may be seen at one time.

People & Communities

Galapagos People and Communities

Tourists arriving by boat to visit Isabela Island.

The islands were discovered in 1535, but were vacant of humans until the 1800s due to their inhospitable terrain. In the 1920s, European and North American settlers began to arrive, as well as Ecuadorians who came to fish and farm. Beginning in the 1960s, tourism and new fisheries brought more settlers. Along with these new economic activities, more and more people migrated to the islands. The Galápagos’ population has increased from roughly 3,000 in the 1960s to about 30,000 in 2012. Four of the islands are inhabited, with most people living on Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal. The nature of the Galápagos provides livelihoods based on tourism, fisheries, and commerce.

Conservation Training

Since 2007, WWF has been awarding scholarships to outstanding Galápagos students to pursue training in environmental management, tourism and business administration. Training the next generation of conservation leaders is important for the long-term conservation of the Galápagos Islands. This scholarship project builds upon other WWF education-centered activities that improve the educational system in the Galápagos.

 

Helping Artisanal Fishermen

Helping Artisanal Fishermen (c)

The intense competition to catch lobster in the Galápagos drives fishermen to pour their money into new vessels and gear. It also leads them to work under risky and dangerous conditions as they dive deeper for longer amounts of time in order to maintain or increase their catch rates. As a result, the number of fishermen with decompression sickness has alarmingly increased over the last decade. WWF tries to relieve this dangerous competition among fishermen (also allowing lobster stocks to recover) and increase incomes by promoting the commercialization of live lobster instead of tails—worth twice as much on the market.

 

Threats

Galapagos Threats Section Photo

Anti-water pollution sign on Isabela Island.

Pollution

Increased generation of waste and improper waste management continue to threaten the land and waters of the Galápagos. These threats relate directly to a large number of inhabitants and tourists and to new consumption patterns and lifestyles. Litter and poorly managed waste easily becomes marine debris which affects the fragile marine ecosystem and even the coasts of uninhabited islands. An unknown number of animals are killed every year when they become entangled in pieces of string or plastic bags, or consume floating trash.

Illegal and Overfishing

Galapagos: Overfishing

The Galápagos Marine Reserve is one of the largest marine protected areas in the world, which makes monitoring and patrolling expensive and challenging. Its rich diversity of marine life also makes it attractive to illegal fishing interests. Overfishing and illegal industrial fishing are serious threats to the islands’ delicate marine ecosystem. They deplete commercial fish, destroy marine environments, and cripple local communities whose livelihoods and health depend on fish. Almost all of the Galápagos’ commercially important coastal species are being overfished. WWF addresses the root causes by supporting the Galápagos National Park to improve the control and surveillance system of the Galápagos Marine Reserve. We also promote an artisanal fishing culture that embraces sustainable fishing practices and maximizes catch while minimizing environmental impacts.

Unsustainable Tourism

Worldwide fame has turned the Galápagos Islands into one of the most popular tourist destinations. Increased visitors as well as rapid human development bring higher demand for imported goods and fossil fuels, introduction of invasive species, and more demand for qualified labor (which comes primarily from mainland Ecuador), migration, and infrastructure needs. Increasing human pressure on the fragile archipelago becomes a potential threat to conservation and local sustainable development.

What WWF Is Doing

Galapagos: Overfishing

Implementing Ecotourism

WWF wants to ensure that tourism in Galápagos becomes a tool for conservation and sustainable development. We help the Galápagos to design and implement a new ecotourism-based model to both support conservation and improve people’s livelihoods through collaboration with partners, governments and communities. WWF was a key player during a three-year process to develop the model, which includes improving local governance, designing new ecotourism activities, promoting an ecotourism-oriented culture and monitoring the impact of the tourism sector. We are also working on reducing the ecological footprint caused by the industry and visitors.

Innovative Fisheries Management

Local fishermen

Local fishermen

WWF works with the lobster fishing communities in the Galápagos Islands to embrace sustainable practices and to promote a new fishing rights-based approach. This would encourage fishermen to catch quality products rather than large volumes and eliminate the intense competition, overfishing and dangerous conditions that happen as a result. We also promote a transition to live lobster rather than tails and pilot live lobster tanks to supply local restaurants. This switch would increase lobsters’ market value and income for fishermen.

Improved Monitoring of the Galápagos Marine Reserve

In the past, the Galápagos National Park struggled to enforce the law that protects the reserve from harmful fishing activity. Park managers were faced with high operating costs and inadequate resources to patrol the large marine reserve. WWF, together with key partners, has helped create more efficient ways to monitor vessels in the marine reserve, using the latest technology such as satellite, radio and radars. Such systems have been very effective at detecting illegal fishing activities and minimizing the risk of vessel accidents, which could lead to oil spills. We also support training of park wardens on these technologies to better equip them to handle such threats against the Reserve’s natural resources.

 

Experts