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Galapagos Islands Ecosystem Mgt.

Case Authors

Sarah Tomsky, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


The Galapagos Islands is the site of an evolving marine ecosystem-based management effort to preserve the unique biological diversity of the archipelago.

Established in 1998, the Galapagos Marine Reserve is rooted in a bottom-up, collaborative decision-making structure that engages multiple stakeholders.

Population growth, increases in tourism, and overfishing are reducing the populations of certain species and harming the ecosystem.

Conservation strategies include a zoning scheme that prohibits fishing and tourism activities in sensitive locations.

Key factors in the success of ecosystem-based management efforts in the Galapagos Islands were the establishment of expressed legal authorization in the form of a 1998 law, consistent external support, and development of a collaborative decision-making body.

Although challenges still arise, the structure has defused tensions on the archipelago that had erupted into violent protests under an older management regime.

MEBM Attributes

  • Balance/Integration: Stakeholders, such as fishers, are involved in providing advice to resource managers.
  • Complexity: A range of ecosystem stressors are acknowledged

Mission and Primary Objectives


The Galapagos Marine Reserve states its mission as protecting and conserving the marine-coastal ecosystems of the archipelago and biological diversity for the benefit of humanity, local populations, science and education.


The management plan outlines the following objectives:

  • Protect and conserve marine and coastal ecosystems of the Galapagos to maintain long-term evolutionary and ecological processes.
  • Complement the protection of the terrestrial environments with components of the Galapagos marine and coastal ecosystems and the species and communities of protected flora and fauna that depend on the marine environment for survival.
  • Protect marine and coastal species that are endemic, vulnerable and important for their genetic, ecological, tourist or intrinsic characteristics.
  • Work for the maintenance and preservation, or in certain cases, the recovery of fishing resources that have great commercial importance to the local community.
  • Facilitate processes for Galapagos fishermen in maintaining and improving their social and economic status, assuming fishing activity is compatible with biodiversity.
  • Conserve Galapagos marine and coastal ecosystems as the economic base of tourist activity by controlling, preventing and reducing environmental impacts caused by their activities.
  • Produce and promote scientific activities to increase understanding of marine biodiversity, exploited species, and ecological impacts caused by human activities.
  • Produce and practice a management system for the marine reserve that is shared and adapted, and from which data can be used to modify management according to new information on socioeconomic and environmental situations.
  • Create and fortify structures and permanent financing through the Galapagos National Park for the marine reserve shared management committee operation.
  • Ensure the preservation and maintenance of the scenic values of the marine and coastal ecosystems of the Galapagos.
  • Establish scientific and technical requirements that ensure environmental protection, conservation and sustainable use of the natural resources of the marine reserve.


Key Parties

Lead Organizations

  • Galapagos National Park Service
  • Charles Darwin Research Station (Local unit of the Charles Darwin Foundation)

Key Parties


  • Minister of the Environment
  • Minister of Defense
  • Minister of Tourism
  • Minister of Industry and Fisheries

Local and Stakeholder

  • Galapagos Chamber of Commerce
  • Galapagos Chamber of Tourism
  • Artisanal Fishers
  • Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations
  • Naturalist Guides


Program Structure

The Galapagos Marine Reserve is managed through a collaborative framework established by the Special Law of 1998. The law established a two-tier decision-making process.

  • Galapagos National Park Service: The park service is responsible for coordinating co-management and implementing decisions.
  • Inter-Institutional Management Authority: The authority develops policy and approves management regulations based on Participatory Management Board proposals. Decisions of the authority are made by majority vote. It includes representatives of four government ministries, artisanal fishers, chamber of commerce, and environmental organizations. A member of the Charles Darwin Research Station participates in an advisory role.
  • Participatory Management Board: The board acts as a forum for user groups. Decisions are made by consensus. The board analyzes issues such as zoning, regulations and research, and makes recommendations to the Inter-Institutional Management Authority. It includes representatives of artisanal fishers, chamber of tourism, naturalist guides, Charles Darwin Research Station, and Galapagos National Park Service.


Motivations for Initiating Effort

Marine ecosystem-based management in the Galapagos Islands is the result of a national legal framework, called the Special Law of 1998, and the finalizing in 1999 of a management plan that was developed through collaboration with conservation interests and archipelago stakeholders.

The Ecuadorian government had established Galapagos National Park in 1959 at the urging of international scientists. It protected 97 percent of the surface of the islands. Management decisions were top-down. Also in 1959, the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands was founded. In 1964, Ecuador signed an agreement establishing the foundation as an advisor to the national park.

In 1986, the marine ecosystem received protections through the establishment of the Galapagos Marine Resources Reserve.

Efforts to protect the marine areas were largely ineffective, lacking authority or proper implementation to impose restrictions. By the mid-1990s, user conflicts had escalated. An early closure to a fishing season in 1995 prompted angry fishermen to occupy foundation offices on the archipelago.

In 1996, the Ecuadorian National Protected Areas Authority declared the marine area a Biological Reserve, giving management authority to the park service. The declaration also required the park service to revise its management plan to include the marine ecosystem. To defuse user conflicts, the park service and foundation actively engaged stakeholders in the development of the plan and hired conflict managers to facilitate the process. The World Wildlife Fund provided financial support to the 18-month-long process.

As the management plan development process continued, Ecuador in 1998 enacted the Special Law for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of the Province of Galapagos. The law provided additional legal basis for regulating marine activities and enforcing restrictions. The law also mandated stakeholder participation and shifted management decisions to local bodies.

Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

The Galapagos Archipelago, located approximately 1000 kilometers west of continental Ecuador, includes 13 large islands, six smaller islands, and 107 islets and rocks.

The Islands are known internationally for their ecological significance, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and more recently have become a tourist destination.

The archipelago lies at the confluence of three major ocean currents. The mixing of warm and cool waters is responsible for the high level of both endemic and native species – nearly 9,000 – and accounts for the approximately 3,000 described species of marine plants and animals. The marine ecosystem is incredibly diverse, supporting cold water species such as penguins and warm water species such as manta rays and corals. It supports about 400 species of fish and provides habitat for marine iguanas, the only lizard that swims in the ocean. Other notable species include anemones, crabs, sharks, sponges, turtles, and urchins.


Four key stressors have been identified:

  • Population growth and tourism: Anthropogenic pressures led to an increase in waste, fossil fuel use, and other activities that stress the ecosystem. The islands’ permanent population increased 123 percent from 1990 to 2006. More than 120,000 people visit the islands today, up from only 20,000 in 1980.
  • Invasive species: Introduced and invasive species, often arriving with tourists, have impacted the ecosystem and hurt native species.
  • Climate change: El Nino events are increasing in frequency and intensity, and have led to declines in species populations.
  • Resource exploitation: Overfishing has reduced species populations and negatively affected the ecosystem.


Major Strategies

The Galapagos Marine Reserve primarily is concerned with fisheries management. It uses the following major strategies to accomplish its conservation objectives:


The Participatory Management Board in 2000 approved a plan to zone 130 acres into four categories:

  • Fourteen Conservation Zones that prohibit fishing and tourism activities.
  • Sixty-two Tourism Zones that prohibit fishing.
  • Forty-five Fishing Zones that prohibit tourism activities.
  • Nine Mixed-Management Zones.


Fishery regulations also are used to control fishing activity. Using the sea cucumber fishery as an example, a total of nine criteria were used in 2003 to regulate the fishery. The criteria included total allowable catch, minimum landing size, and the evaluation of population densities. Fishing from a nursery area also was banned.


During the fishing season, Galapagos National Park Service vessels patrol the fishing grounds with at least one Ecuadorian Naval officer aboard. Satellite tracking devices on fishing vessels allow the park service and navy to evaluate ship interaction and zone usage.


Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

Fisheries Monitoring Programme

Fishing activity is monitored through the Fisheries Monitoring Programme, which was initiated in 1997. The Galapagos National Park Service and staff from the Charles Darwin Research Station implement the program with oversight from the Ecuadorian Undersecretary of Fishing. Information is collected on fishing sites, fishing effort, total catch and fishing methods for all extracted species. The process is overseen by fishing observers, landing monitors, park wardens and marine resource officers. Although a recent study indicated the total allowable catch in the fishery had been exceeded nearly every year, the monitoring also contributes to the collection of scientific data and provides helpful information to the Participatory Management Board.

Participatory Evaluation

In an effort to legitimize scientific data, the management plan requires all members of the Participatory Management Board to join in the monitoring and evaluation of the abundance and reproductive capacity of commercial fish stocks within the marine reserve, as well as the impacts of the zoning scheme.



Building a Participatory Process

The Galapagos Marine Reserve has enjoyed sustained participation by stakeholder groups in the Participatory Management Board. Decisions are generally accepted as legitimate by stakeholders. The process has reduced the conflict and hostility among stakeholders.

The process builds the capacity of local stakeholders to participate in management decisions. Fishing sector representatives, for instance, receive training in negotiation skills and data collection. The credibility of the process is strengthened. More durable decisions are made.

The strengthened relationships and communication among groups with such a contentious history represent a significant achievement.

Factors Facilitating Progress

The Galapagos Marine Reserve has been facilitated by key factors, including:

  • Links between terrestrial and marine systems: An understanding that the terrestrial and marine ecosystems were linked spurred scientists and non-governmental organizations to focus on the entire archipelago. It legitimized efforts geared to managing marine resources for conservation purposes.
  • Crisis: The conflict in the marine reserve that escalated to a national crisis in 1996 generated publicity, concern and political will at the national level.
  • Consensus-Based Decision-Making: The decision-rules that govern the Participatory Management Board provides incentives for members to find mutually-agreed upon decisions that are durable.
  • Legal Tools: The Special Law of 1998 provided a legal basis for marine management, providing an institutional framework for decision-making and giving the Galapagos National Park Service the authority to enforce management decisions.
  • Scientific Presence: Although much of the research on the archipelago is not driven by management needs, the long-term presence of the Charles Darwin Research Station has ensured that science is given a strong voice in management.
  • International Attention and Commitment: Pressure from international non-governmental organizations and UNESCO mandated an attempt at ecosystem-based management. Increased tourism, which relies on the conservation of the archipelago’s biodiversity, also provided an important economic incentive. International attention also brought NGO funding for preservation efforts.



The Galapagos Marine Reserve has encountered the following challenges to realizing its conservation goals:

  • Legal Legitimacy: Implementing regulations in the marine reserve was difficult given the competition over resources. Conservation and protection of biodiversity had been a priority for 50 years, but the early efforts to manage a reserve were not effective because they lacked the legitimacy of national law. The Special Law of 1998 proved to be a turning point, establishing a governance framework and institutional decision-making structure. Without national-level legal authority, the Galapagos National Park Service likely would be struggling with compliance related to zoning and fishing regulations.
  • Lack of a Shared Vision: A shared vision for the marine reserve was not explicitly described in the management plan, hampering the work of the Participatory Management Board. A 2001 evaluation of participation in the board process gave the members the chance to discuss the lack of a shared vision, formulate a vision for the board, and identify objectives to meet the challenges of a participatory co-management scheme.
  • Involving the Fishing Community: Fishermen live on five different islands that have different characteristics. Some fishermen distrusted their elected representative to the board, fearing that personal and political interests of the individual might take precedence over the interests of the wider fishing community. Fishermen questioned the legitimacy of providing a seat on the board to the Charles Darwin Research Station. Obtaining complete buy-in from fishermen in the process is difficult; most of the decisions affect their livelihoods. Many fishermen believe the process is stacked against them.
  • Political Instability: Between 2004 and 2006, the position of director of the Galapagos National Park changed hands 12 times. Local and national political instability also weakens the authority of the governance structure in the reserve.
  • Socioeconomic Pressure: Despite intentions in creating new economic opportunities for fishermen, expectations have not been realized. Fishermen often are financially bound to fish despite falling population densities and against their own long-term interest because of high debts.
  • Enforcement Difficulties: Resources for enforcing regulations are limited. User groups believe enforcement is conducted selectively and is not applied to all user groups equally. Fishermen believe permits to use the resources are not fairly awarded between fishing and tourism interests, and accuse managers of corruption in the distribution of permits.


Lessons Learned

People involved with the Galapagos Marine Reserve have learned:

  • Develop an Effective Governance Structure: Having a legal framework for decision-making was essential. It engineered institutional change and maintained the credibility of the innovative institutional arranagement.
  • Use Zoning as a Tool: Zoning was one tool that effectively managed resource extraction. Continued monitoring and adaptive management needs to be part of the zoning plan.
  • Seize the Moment: Opportunities need to be seized when concern and attention is tuned to the ecosystem.
  • Anticipate New Challenges: Having the foresight and capability to anticipate and respond to new challenges is crucial given that marine ecosystem-based management is a long-term process.
  • Focus Research on Management Challenges: The research agenda has to be shared and contribute to the management of the marine area.


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