Galápagos National Park & Galápagos Marine Resources Reserve, Ecuador


The Galapagos National Park and Galapagos Marine Resources Reserve (1°40'N -1°36'S, 89°14' - 92°01'W) is a World Heritage Site, isolated in the Pacific Ocean 800-1,100 kilometers (km) west of Ecuador at the confluence of several ocean currents, cold and warm. These volcanic islands and the surrounding seas are the largest, most diverse almost pristine archipelago remaining in the world, a natural museum of geological, ecological and evolutionary processes. Their varied climates and extreme isolation, have produced one of the world's highest concentrations of endemic species ]including unusual animals such as the land and marine iguanas, giant tortoises and the many types of finch that inspired Darwin's theory of evolution following his visit in 1835. One-third of the archipelago's vascular land plants are endemic, as are nearly all the reptiles, half the breeding land birds, and almost 30% of the marine species of the archipelago.

Threats to the Site

Invasion by large-scale tourism and unsustainable fishing by mainland fishermen financed by foreign companies supported by authority, is waging permanent opposition to the restrictions of the National Park. The resulting growth in population, unplanned urbanization, pollution, damaging invasion by exotic species and the resulting degradation of habitats is unplanned for and barely controlled at present.

Geographical Location

caption Map of the Galapagos Islands. (Source: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)

The Galápagos (or Colon) Archipelago is in the east Pacific Ocean 800-1,100 km west of mainland Ecuador. The equator runs through Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island. The Marine Reserve includes all the water within a circumferential zone 40 nautical miles wide.

Date and History of the Establishment

  • 1936: the Galapagos National Park (GNP) established by Executive Decree # 31
  • 1959: Boundary ratified by decree #17, to include all islands except those colonized on 20 July,1959
  • 1968: Boundaries finally established; effective park administration began
  • 1984: Recognized as a Biosphere Reserve under the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Program
  • 1986: The Galápagos Biological Marine Resources Reserve (GMRR) established by Executive Decree #1810-A to include all waters within 15 nautical miles (n.m.) (extended to 40 n.m. in 1998) of a baseline joining the outermost points of the Islands; the zoning plan was not approved till 1992
  • 1998: Special Law for the Galapagos (# 278) published and a management plan for the GMRR drawn up
  • 2002: Poza de las Diablas on Isabela I. declared a Ramsar Site of International Importance


Total: 142,665.14 square kilometers (km2)

  • Land: 7,665.14 km2 (97% of the islands)
  • Marine Reserve: 135,000 km2.

Land Tenure

State. Administered by a tripartite commission of the National Park, the National Fisheries Directorate and the Navy.


From -180 meters (m) underwater to 1,707 m (Wolf Volcano).

Physical Features

The striking volcanic archipelago of Galápagos rises from a submarine platform on the junction of the Nazca and Cocos tectonic plates. It consists of 13 islands larger than 10 km2 and 115 smaller ones. The largest islands are Isabela (4,588 km2), Santa Cruz (986 km2), Fernandina (642 km2), San Salvador / Santiago (585 km2), San Cristobal (558 km2), Floreana / Santa Maria (172 km2), Marchena (130 km2), Española (60 km2) and Pinto (59 km2). There is considerable variation in altitude and area between the islands which, with their physical remoteness, has contributed towards the species diversity and endemism of the archipelago.

Geologically, the islands are young, formed by moving slowly eastward over a hot spot in the Earth's crust. The oldest island furthest east is 2.4 to 3 million years old, the youngest, Fernandina in the west, 700,000 years old. Most of the larger islands are the summit of a gently sloping shield volcano, some rising over 3,000 m from the ocean floor though Isabela is formed of five volcanoes. The western part of the archipelago experiences intense volcanic and seismic activity, culminating in collapsed craters or calderas: in June 1968, the southeastern floor of the Fernandina caldera dropped some 300 m, the second largest caldera collapse since Krakatoa's in 1883. The summits are studded with parasitic vents a few tens of meters high, and frequently flanked by lava flows. Long stretches of shoreline are only slightly eroded, but in many places faulting and marine erosion have produced steep cliffs and lava, coral or shell-sand beaches. Other landscape features include crater lakes, fumaroles, lava tubes, sulfur fields and a great variety of lava and other ejecta such as pumice, ash and tuff. The terrain is generally composed of uplifted marine lava flows which form an uneven surface, strewn with a deep layer of rounded or angular boulders. Soils are very poor. Freshwater is limited and among the inhabited islands, only San Cristobal has an adequate perennial supply for human consumption. Seasonal springs occur on Santa Cruz and Floreana, and brackish water is available on all islands.

The principal habitats of the Marine Reserve are the rocky sea shore, the vertical rock walls, the sandy beaches, the mangroves and a few coral reefs: a coastline of 1,336 km. The marine environments are highly varied and are associated with water temperature regimes differing in nutrient and light levels. Detailed descriptions of these currents are given in Glynn and Wellington. The main surface current affecting the islands is the South Equatorial current that moves from east to west. This is fed from the southeast by cold waters from the Humboldt Current and from the northeast, by the moderately warm sub-tropical waters from the North Equatorial counter-current via the Peru Flow. The most important undercurrent is the Equatorial Undercurrent that flows from the west, producing upwellings of cool water rich in nutrients near western shores. The seasonally fluctuating North Equatorial Front, which separates tropical and subtropical water masses, lies just south of the small northern islands of Darwin and Wolf for much of the year, and these islands are the most tropical in their marine biota, with extensive fringing reefs. In western Isabela and Fernandina, upwelling of cool plankton-rich water from the Equatorial Undercurrent is often intense, particularly between June and December, adding to the islands' diversity of habitats and species.. This is caused by deep currents hitting the underwater base of the islands and submarine volcanoes (bajos) which rise to near the surface. This upwelling may also influence the southern islands of Floreana and Española, especially their western shores. The central zones, comprising the east coast of Isabela, Santa Cruz, San Salvador and perhaps Marchena and Pinta, undergo moderate seasonal temperature fluctuations of about 10°C.


The Galápagos Islands' climate is strongly influenced by oceanic currents and is very variable: its two seasons result from the shifting of these currents. The relatively cold Humboldt Current flowing from the Antarctic flows around and through the islands most of the year. This current meets warm tropical waters from the Gulf of Panama at a point north of the archipelago. From January to May the convergence moves south and the warm current surrounds the islands. The dry season, caused by the Humboldt current, is characterized by cool temperatures (17°C-22°C), a fairly persistent fog (garua) that envelopes the highlands of the larger islands in mist and drizzle, together with southeasterly winds. The variable shorter hot season caused by the warm current, has warmer temperatures (23°C-27°C), light easterly winds and seasonal rains though on the peaks temperatures decline by some 0.9°C for every 100 m of altitude. At the wettest place at sea level, the mean annual precipitation is 356 millimeters (mm), whilst at 200 m above sea level the equivalent figure is 1,092 mm. But the rainfall is variable: approximately every four years El Niño creates a major warm water flow during this season, bringing heavy rainfall, and in 1982 and 1997-8 this warm downpour caused great loss of marine dependent sea birds and marine iguanas.


According to McFarland & Cifuentes: "The Galapagos are still one of the most unspoiled areas remaining on the planet"...with..."approximately 5,500 - 6,000 already identified species"..."the islands probably harbor 7,000 to 9,000 species"; and to Snell: "At least 96% of the original biological diversity of the Galapagos remains intact". There are approximately 560 plant species and subspecies native to the islands, of which about 40% are endemic. But more than 500 species are non-native introductions. This is a seven-fold increase in the last 25 years, in a very fragile ecosystem. These occur predominantly around human settlements and in the cultivated zone. In the native vegetation there are from one to three zones on the lowland islands: coastal, arid (80-120 m), and transitional (100-200 m) which cover the largest area, and three to four more on mountainous islands: closed forest (200-500 m), mossy open forest and mossy scrub (500-1,000 m) and summit pampa above 1,000 m. All benefit from the surrounding coastal waters through nutrients dropped by marine birds.

Coastal vegetation occurs along beaches, salt-water lagoons and low, broken, boulder-strewn shores. Protected coves and lagoons are dominated by red, white, black and button mangrove swamps of Rhizophora mangle, Avicennia germinans, Laguncularia racemosa and Conocarpus erecta with the halophytic herbs Sesuvium spp., which are rich nursery and breeding grounds for fish, invertebrates and birds. The arid zone is found immediately inland from the littoral zone, and is the most widespread formation in the islands. The principal species are xerophytic and include the cactus species Bursera graveolens, Croton scouleri, Brachycereus nesioticus, Jasminocereus thouarsii (R) and Opuntia echios ssp.

The humid zone emerges above the arid zone through a transition belt in which elements of the two are combined. This is a very damp zone maintained in the dry season by thick garua fogs which accumulate through most of the night and last well into each day. It is dominated by Pisonia floribunda. Other forest species include sunflower trees Scalesia spp.and Psidium galapageium, bearing epiphytes. Above this is a zone dominated by the cats-claw tree Zanthoxylum fagara, then a zone once dominated by the shrub Miconia robinsoniana (VU) where low trees are replaced by a dense shrub cover. These zones were most extensively developed on Santa Cruz Island, but have been almost totally altered by man for farming and grazing, and only small areas remain in a natural state. A fern-grass-sedge pampa covers the summit areas of the larger islands where moisture is retained in temporary pools and sphagnum moss. Here there are 11 native orchid species, and endemic tree ferns Cyathea weatherbyana occupy collapsed lava tubes and other small potholes.

Several introduced plants have had a heavy impact on the landscape of inhabited islands. Large highland areas on all four inhabited islands have been invaded by guava Psidium guajava. Orange and lemon trees Citrus spp. are widespread on San Cristobal and Floreana, Lantana camara also occupies the humid and lower transitional areas of Floreana. Quinine tree Chinchona succirubra and mora Caesalpinia bonduc have altered parts of the humid zone of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. Blackberry Rubus adenotrichis is rampant, elephant grass Pennistum purpureum, African kikuyu grass Pennisetum clandestinum and other grasses and shrubs have taken over many areas of the inhabited islands, especially Santa Cruz.


The endemic fauna includes 115 indigenous, 24 introduced vertebrate, and 2,000 invertebrate species. These flourish best on the four largest uninhabited islands. There are a few indigenous mammals but all the 35 reptiles, except for two marine turtles, are endemic. These include Galapagos giant tortoise Geochelone nigra (VU), with twenty subspecies on different islands, all of which are endangered, terrestrial iguanas Conolophus subcristatus (VU) and C. pallidus (VU) and marine iguana Amblyrhynchus cristatus (VU) which is the world's only sea-going lizard and feeds on seaweed. The endemic snakes are tree racer Alsophis dorsalia, A. slevini and Philodryas biserialis. There are numerous lava lizards of the genus Tropidurus and geckos Phyllodactylus spp. The islands are important for two species of sea turtle: green turtle Chelonia mydas (EN) and hawksbill turtle Eretmochelys imbricata (CR) which are common in the surrounding waters, with the former nesting on sandy beaches.

caption The giant tortoise is indigenous to the Galapagos Islands, and is also endangered. (Source: University of Oregon School of Journalism)

The native mammalian fauna includes six species: Galápagos fur seal Arctocephalus galapogoensis (VU), Galápagos sea lion Zalophus californianus wollebacki (VU), rice rat Oryzomys galapagoensis (VU) on Santa Fé, and on Fernandina, a rice rat Nesoryzomys indefessus (VU), hairytailed bat Lasiurus brachyotis and hoary bat L.cinereus. There are over 1,600 insect species on the islands, 900 being endemic, but these have been little studied. There is at least one endemic scorpion species, 80 spider species, several of them endemic, and a number of endemic centipedes. There are also 80 species of small land snail species, with Bulimulus represented by over 60 species. Some snails are endemic to individual islands and others to vegetation zones on several islands.

The native avifauna includes 57 residents, of which 28 (49%) are endemic and 31 are regular migrants; a number of vagrants are also present. Endemic taxa include 13 species of Darwin's finches, including the Floreana tree finch Camarhynchus pauper (VU) and mangrove finch C. heliobates (CR). Other noteworthy species include dark-rumped petrel Pterodroma phaeopygia (CR), Galapagos flightless cormorant Phalacrocorax harrisi (EN), Galapagos penguin Spheniscus mendiculus (EN), lava gull Larus fuliginosus (VU), Floreana mockingbird Nesomimus trifasciatus (EN), Galapagos hawk Buteo galapagoensis (VU), lava heron Butorides sundevalli, nocturnal swallow-tailed gull Creagrus furcatus, Galapagos rail Laterallus spilonotus (VU), thick-billed flycatcher Myiarchus magnirostris, Galapagos martin Progne modesta and Galapagos dove Zenaida galapagoensis. Non-endemic threatened birds include the waved albatross Phoebastria irrorata (VU) and Markham's storm-petrel Oceanodroma markhami.

The Galápagos is a distinct biotic province. The marine environment has a mixture of species formed in the convergence of ocean currents which have transported marine biota from tropical and subtropical regions of Central and South America and the Indo-Pacific. The level of endemism is almost 30%. There are some 306 species of fishes from 92 families. At least 51 species (17%) are endemic to the Galápagos. There are 12 species of sharks and 6 species of rays. The interaction between the terrestrial and marine environment is particularly important for the marine iguana and for 27 of the islands' 57 bird species, especially the flightless cormorant, the Galápagos penguin and large numbers of nesting seabirds.

Dolphins and the endemic sea lions and fur seals are abundant. Several species of baleen whales, among them the fin and humpback whales Balaenoptera physalus (EN) and Megaptera novaeangliae (VU), and toothed whales, including sperm Physeter catodon (VU), pilot and killer whales are regularly seen. There are 650 species of sea shells, 200 sea-stars and urchins and 120 crabs. The colorful Sally lightfoot crab Graspus graspus is a distinctive shoreline species. Due to the cool waters of the Humboldt Current during 4 to 6 months per year, the Galápagos is a marginal environment for coral reefs; 120 species however, are found in its warmer waters.

Cultural Heritage

According to the writings of Miguel Caballo de Balboa in 1586, the islands were first discovered by the Incas in the middle of the 15th century. In 1535, the Bishop of Panama christened them Las Islas Encantadas (the later Galapago is the name for a saddle) and from then on they were used as a stop-off by sailors, buccaneers and whalers who introduced foreign species and hunted down tortoises and seals. They were annexed by Ecuador in 1832. In 1835, Charles Darwin visited the islands while on his voyage in the survey ship Beagle, and his observations while there on species diversity between the islands, were later to support his theory of evolution. Despite visits by passing ships, the islands remained largely unsettled until the second half of the last century.

Local Human Population

In 1949 the population was 800, in 1990, 9785 and in 2000 it is about 17,000 which occupies around 3% of the land area of the islands. Fishing and cattle were the basis of the islands' economy, with, in 1974, 3,000 cattle on southern Isabela and 300 on Floreana. This is now augmented by tourism which employs some 40% of the population. During the 1960s, outsiders introduced the unsustainable, illegal and now universal methods of fishing. Many fishermen are economically dependent on the Marine Reserve, having come in search of a living due to the collapse through overfishing of the mainland industry. The population increased by 7.8% between 1990 and 1995, 6.1% from immigration and only 1.7% through natural increase. One 1994 survey showed that the 73% of the population which had arrived since 1986 were either little skilled economic refugees or transient businessmen. Neither value the environmental quality of the islands, and both agitate for the land and marine parks to be opened up for development. Some 80% live on the islands of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal islands where tourist facilities are based, on Floreana and on Isabela island for the fishing. It is estimated that the population will grow to 40,000 in 2015 and 80,000 in 2027. Migration to the islands is now said to be controlled by laws of the Republic.

Visitors and Visitor Facilities

caption The Galapagos marine iguana, a diving reptile that feeds on algae. This male iguana is about 1.2 meters long, including tail. (Source: Texas A&M University at Galveston)

The basic attraction is the abundant fearless wildlife. From 1967 to the late 1990s, commercial tourism increased by 8% a year: from 3,000 in 1969 and an acceptable maximum target of 20,000 in 1985, to an annual average of 62,000 from 1995 to 1999, of which 76% were foreigners arriving in 95 tourist vessels. The value of Galápagos tourism to the national economy is estimated at US$100 million, of which US$6 million are generated by entrance fees paid by visitors. However most of the profits accrue to the large tour companies rather than to the local people whose resources are visited. All visits to tourist sites should be carried out by qualified guides, authorized by the GNP and the Navy, but the pressure of tourist numbers is being met with temporary little-qualified guides from the mainland. The infrastructure of basic services is well established. Hotels, lodges and restaurants, are concentrated on Santa Cruz.

Tourists come to the islands in large cruise ships, or by air and use 6 or 12-passenger tour boats. They are admitted (for the day only) into three of six zones. There are 21 Intensive Visitor Zones on fifteen islands, where a maximum of 90 people are allowed simultaneously on shore. 15 Extensive Visitor Zones on seven islands are open to groups of up to 20. There also are 19 Recreational Zones on the four main inhabited islands. To preserve vulnerable animal life and fragile sites the use of licensed guides and marked trails is obligatory. There are also 64 marine sites. Tourist scuba diving is increasing and major dive sites include Roca Redonda, Punta Vicente Roca (Isabela), Tagus Cove, Isla Albany (San Salvador), Devil's Crown (Floreana), and Darwin and Wolf islands; Sombrero Chino is popular for snorkelling (Robinson, 1983). There are two interpretation centers, one in the National Park and the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) on Santa Cruz and the other in San Cristobal.

Scientific Research and Facilities

The Charles Darwin Foundation was established in 1959 and its Charles Darwin Research Station, was inaugurated on Santa Cruz Island in 1964. It is jointly supported by the Government of Ecuador, the IUCN and UNESCO and funding comes from a variety of European and U.S. conservation bodies and from private donations. It advises the government on conservation, educates the public, trains scientists and managers and secures international support. Particular emphasis is placed on work programs which will assist in the management of the park. There have been over 700 scientific missions to the Galápagos using the Charles Darwin Research Center (CDRS) as a base, and over 6,000 scientific publications. There have been research projects including studies of the island ecosystems; the ecology of and conservation strategies for the fauna and flora; geomorphology and climate; and studies of introduced plant and animal species. Research conducted in 1997 by visiting scientists include studies on human impacts on patterns of biological diversity, and the effects on fauna of heavy metal contamination. More than 800 Ecuadorian students have carried out research which has served for undergraduate or post-graduate thesis work. Publications of the Research Station are available on the islands and at the University of Ecuador.

Among the studies of the marine environment, those by Gerard Wellington, who assisted GNP and CDRS from 1973 to 1975 to evaluate its resources, are notable. His report recommended the creation of a marine park and the increase in size of the protected zone around the islands. In the 1980s the major part of the marine investigation was done jointly by the National Institute of Fisheries (INP) and the CDRS. This partnership produced more than 30 reports which contributed to the creation of the scientific database for the management of the resources in Galápagos. Oceanographic studies were also carried out by the Oceanographic Institute of the Navy with CDRS. Since 1994, research has been directed more towards providing information to help with the management, conservation and protection activities. Some of the more important initiatives have focused on the diversity and abundance of marine life, to identify zones which should have priority for protection. Marine studies since 1998 have covered currents, marine mammals and iguanas, whale sharks, lobsters, sea cucumbers, fish larvae and corals.

Conservation Value

At the confluence of three major ocean currents, cold and warm, and combining sub-Antarctic with tropical biota, these volcanic islands and the surrounding marine reserve are the largest, most diverse almost pristine archipelago remaining in the world, a natural museum for the study of geological, ecological and evolutionary processes. Their varied climates, ongoing vulcanism and extreme isolation, has produced one of the highest concentrations of endemic species in the world including unusual animals such as the land and marine iguanas, giant tortoises and the many types of finch that inspired Darwin's theory of evolution following his visit in 1835. One-third of the archipelago's vascular land plants are endemic, as are nearly all the reptiles, half the breeding land birds, and almost 30% of the species in the waters around the archipelago.

Conservation Management

Until 1959, little importance was given to the conservation and preservation of the islands and several species came to the verge of extinction. But since 1960 the Government of Ecuador has been helping to maintain this living museum by preventing hunting, particularly of tortoises and seals; eliminating pests such as goats that have destroyed flora; controlling the pigs that have reduced the tortoise population; and controlling the fire ant Wasmannia auropunctata which is invading the islands, killing off young birds and the native ant. Successful breeding programs for the threatened tortoise and land iguana populations were developed. The first management plan for Galapagos was approved in 1974, revised in 1984 and again in 1996. Six land use-zones were established: Absolutely Protected, Primitive, Special Use, Extensive Visitor, Intensive Visitor and Recreational (Developed). A series of plans were also prepared for the technical offices at San Cristobal, Isabela, Santa Cruz and Floreana in 1996. The Charles Darwin Research Station advises the National Park Service on protective programs for the biota, tourism policies and environmental education programs. In 1999 the System of Inspection and Quarantine for Galapagos (SICGAL) tied in other Ecuadorean institutions to start to control biotic invasions such as canine distemper. Then in late 2002 Poza de las Diablas on the south coast of Isabela Island where flamingo and diablo fish breed, was declared a Ramsar Site of International Importance; and a management plan is being prepared to help limit overfishing and invasion by kikuyu grass. In 2003 the Japanese Agency for International Cooperation (JICA) began to fund a five year project to support education, conservation and local development.

In November 1996 the National Institute of Forests and Natural Protected Areas (INEFAN) integrated the Marine Reserve originally established in 1986 into the National System of Protected Areas under the name of Galápagos Biological Reserve of Marine Resources. Its administration was conceded to the Galápagos National Park Service (GNP), providing it with the legal authority to patrol the marine areas against illegal fishing. In 1987 a draft zoning plan for the Marine Resources Reserve was produced. Four types of zone were proposed: a General Use Zone for sustainable use of the reserve: Artisanal and Recreational Fishing Zones for the benefit of residents; National Marine Park Zones for human activities where natural resources are neither damaged nor removed; and Strict Nature Reserves where human access is not permitted. The definitive version of this plan was finally approved and published in August 1992 by government decree. In April 1997 an emergency decree was issued by the President of the Ecuadorean Republic which imposed restrictions on in-migration and non-artisanal fishing. The decree also required Congress to draft a Special Law for the Galápagos, providing a clear legal framework for the management of the islands. A moratorium was placed on new permits for cruise ships until the year 2005. This plan was not implemented, but in 1997 was revised by INEFAN and staff of the Research Station.

The 1997 plan served as a basis for the formulation of a Management Plan for the conservation and sustainable use of the Marine Resources Reserve. This provided for the establishment of participatory and adaptive management, the definition of human uses and responsibilities for reserve management, regulations and a system of zoning. Activities permitted but regulated include fishing, tourism, scientific research, conservation, boating and military maneuvers. The multiple use zone consists mainly of the area of deep water that is located inside the baseline; the limited use zones comprise the coastal waters that surround each island and other shallow waters (typically less than 300 m deep). The Special Law for the Galapagos was published in March,1998. This extended the outer marine reserve from 15 to 40 km offshore, establishing a 130,000 km2 reserve for the conservation of marine biodiversity. It proposed four Special Regulations: to regulate artisanal fishing, regulate tourism in protected areas, quarantine and eradicate introduced species and impose environmental controls though there has been little progress on these since mid-2001. It was hoped also to create local public awareness and skills, and to control immigration. The National Park, as well as managing the Marine Reserve, has jurisdiction over its natural resources. It coordinates the preparation and supervises the implementation of the management, conservation and sustainable use plans for the Marine Reserve and the other policy and planning instruments. A Participatory Management Board is the forum for users and stakeholders of the GMRR to encourage effective participation and responsible management by the users. It is composed of representatives of the artisanal fishing sector, the Galápagos Chamber of Tourism, the CDRS and the National Park. A CDRS/Park Service project partly financed by WWF drew up an ecological monitoring system and a list of introduced species.

Ecuador negotiated a loan of about US$10 million from the Inter-American Development Bank to develop the management capacity of the Park Service to execute and maintain certain activities. These are: a) management, direction and administration; b) control, surveillance and rescue; c) investigation and monitoring; 4) education, communication and training; and 5) administration of the use of natural resources. By 2002, projects funded by UNESCO/UNF, CDF, GEF, UNDP and the Inter American Development Bank had assured some progress on invasive species (particularly cushiony scale), marine conservation, quarantine and institution strengthening. But the Special Regulations, needed before implementation of the Special Law for the Galapagos can be enforced, had still not been promulgated. In late 2002, partly in response to the movement of shark fishermen to the Cocos Islands, a marine conservation and sustainable development corridor was launched between the Galapagos and the Cocos Islands (800 km north), by WHC with Conservation International, IUCN and the governments of Ecuador, Costa Rica, Columbia and Panama.

Management Constraints

The Islands are faced with major threats to their conservation. Chief among these is a decline in the maintenance of law and authority, aggravated by a minority of influential islanders. Governmental authority in the islands is divided and commercial operators are usually ahead of the Park's existing measures of control. In fact, since the establishment of the Marine Reserve there has always been economic conflict between the fishing industry and the tourism companies and conservationists. Little progress on the 1998 Special Regulations has been made since mid 2001, creating uncertainty about the future.

The terrestrial ecological balance of the islands has been threatened by the introduction of predators, competing species and exotic plants such as guava, citrus, lantana, quinine, elephant grass and blackberry which invade the territory of native species on abandoned farms. Over the past decade alone it is estimated that 100-150 species of plants have been introduced onto the islands. Agriculture is the main form of income for 8-10% of the population. The highest biodiversity found on the islands is contained in the humid middle-higher elevations of the islands. This is also the best agricultural land, and the natural habitats have been changed and fragmented over some 60% of the humid middle-higher elevation habitats. Some of the worst problems have been caused by goats, pigs, dogs, cats, rats and their parasites. Fernandina is one of the largest undisturbed islands in the world, currently devoid of introduced vertebrate species. However, sea cucumber fishermen illegally camping on shore have increased the risk of introducing rats, ants, other insects and seeds. Recently goats were re-introduced on Pinta, an island from which the Park Service and CDRS spent over 20 years removing some 40,000 goats. But pigs will soon be eradicated and goats numbers diminished on Santiago island.

In 1994, the National Fisheries Development Council, a body which developed from the commercial industry, lifted the ban on fishing, allowing 'experimental' fishing of sea cucumbers, lobsters, sharks, groupers and other species, creating an economic pressure, sustained by political influence, to maximize short-term profits from fishing. Large foreign ships, often with official permits, and supported by mainland fishing companies and buyers, especially from the port of Manta, increased the pressure on fishermen both local and mainlanders to harvest the marine resources unsustainably. These brought in 1995 over 23% of Ecuador's foreign earnings, much of it from the Oriental market for luxuries and aphrodisiac foods such as sharks fins and sea cucumbers: the harvesting of sea cucumbers had been encouraged by a Taiwanese business delegation in 1990. Conservation is seen as the enemy of this trade.

The popularity of the islands with tourists is increasing beyond the power of the existing Park facilities to accommodate it, and the Park is under pressure from tour operators and the increasing numbers of large commercial vessels owned by outsiders, whose permits to visit the islands are issued by the merchant marine, not by the Park authorities. This replacement of locals by wealthy outsider companies is depriving islanders of their power of influencing decisions about the islands. There is now very little guiding by Park staff. The zoning system that used to protect the islands from tourism is outdated and does not cater for the new types of tourism which are developing such as jet skiing, diving, sport fishing and helicopter tours. Other problems include fire risks, litter and waste disposal, difficult in the thin soil. There has been a decline in agricultural holdings as the economic dependence on tourism grows, and unplanned urban growth has occurred around the tourist bases. Demands for infrastructural services has outstripped capacity, and dissatisfaction amongst residents is growing. Inadequate services, pollution, crime and environmental degradation have followed the unplanned growth of the past two decades. If government control is not imposed the unique resources of the National Park may be irremediably degraded by exploitation for short-term profit.

The Park's own legal basis for maintenance and control of the marine sites is weak. Marine biodiversity has been particularly threatened by the uncontrolled illegal fishing by large ships owned by mainland or Asiatic fishing companies in pelagic zones, often inside the Marine Reserve, using high technology methods such as long-lining. These encourage the local fishermen to exploit the resources for the international market. Lifting the ban on fishing led to large-scale exploitation; the sea cucumber limit was exceeded 20 days into the fishing season. Fishermen illegally collected other commercially valuable species such as sea horses, snails, sea urchins and black coral. In response to this situation, the Sub-secretary of Fisheries officially ended the 'experimental' fishing season in mid-December 1994. In response, in early 1995, sea-cucumber fishermen (peperinos) took over the Park buildings and Research Station and threatened to sabotage conservation services, harm staff and critically endangered species, and to interrupt tourism services unless the fisheries were reopened.

Further unrest occurred in 1995 after the Ecuadorian President vetoed a law passed by the Ecuadorian National Congress which would have politicized the Park Service, giving management authority over the National Park to local politicians and special interest groups. This was followed by a second series of hostage takings guided by two elected officials and a small group of island residents. The Mayor of the capital threatened to take tourists hostage and set the Park on fire. Government property was damaged and stolen, municipal property was taken over, the CDRS was blocked and the staff prevented from working. Equipment and supplies belonging to illegal fishermen which had been confiscated by the Park Service were returned to the fishermen on orders from higher authorities. No significant penalties for illegal harvesting of marine resources or destruction of the terrestrial habitat were levied. Most of the native residents of the islands did not support this agitation.

In March, 1997 a park warden was shot and seriously wounded by illegal fishermen whilst trying to inspect an illegal fishing camp and sea-cucumber processing plant on the west coast of Isabela Island. These illegal campers cut down mangroves for use as fuelwood, which are the habitat of the rarest species of Darwin finch. The area of densest sea cucumber populations has already been heavily impacted, thus decreasing its economic attraction. Many sharks, rays and marine mammals are caught as by-catch of driftnet and longline fishing. There are fears that this type of unsustainable 'gold-rush' fishing will exacerbate social problems when the source of income dries up for the 800 fishermen attracted to the island by these opportunities. The Management Plan for the Galápagos Marine Reserve (GMRR) was approved in 1998 but not implemented for several years. In 1999 the government again issued permits for sea cucumber and shark fishing, and again, in November 2000, the National Park Service buildings and the Charles Darwin Research Station were sacked by fishermen agitating for an increased fishing season and quotas. In 2001, a leading conservationist was jailed but the illegal fishermen he was restraining were released from custody.

In January 2001 oil spilled from the tanker Jessica, which ran aground offshore from the capital, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island. Despite attempts by the Ecuadorian Navy, the United States Coast Guard and other agencies, within three weeks, most of the 900,000 liters of oil escaped and dispersed, killing some 10-25,000 marine iguanas on Santa Fé though elsewhere the contamination was widespread but light. Environmental organizations were quick to point out the involvement from the start in mitigating the disaster by local fishermen, the tourism sector and the local population. Mitigation included collecting the fuel on the water; rescuing wildlife like boobies, pelicans and sea lions, which were evacuated to the coast, and the building of corrals to keep the animals in during the emergency. And in October 2002, US$10 million compensation was awarded to the National Park against the insurers. Meanwhile however, in 2000, 12 sea-lions and in June 2001, 35 more were destroyed for parts considered aphrodisiac in the Far East. In sum, without sufficient staff, programs and funding the GNP, GMRR and CDF which have preserved the integrity of these unique islands so far, will not be able to effectively control the problems brought by the unplanned growth of the population, tourism, overfishing and lack of governmental authority.


This comprises one director, one sub-director, one technical coordinator, various chiefs (one in each inhabited island), two accountants, protection officers (one per technical office), 41 rangers, and four assistant secretaries. Approximately 25 people are dedicated to the GMR.


In 1994, the budget was US$860,000. The expected budget for 1995 was US$905,000. In 1998 the WHB granted US$92,500 for training and technical cooperation. The National Park receives 40% of all the revenues paid by the visitors to the islands; the GMR receives 5%; a further 5% is given to the Ecuadorian Naval Army. These three items totaled US$3.6 million in 1999. The Galápagos National Park receives an additional income from the tourism operating permits, as well as funds from the national budget. In 2003 JICA (Japan) launched a 5-year plan to fund education, conservation and development projects.

IUCN Management Category

  • II National Park. Biosphere Reserve. Ramsar site (part).
  • IV Marine Reserve (Managed Resource Protected Area)
  • Natural World Heritage Site, inscribed in 1978 and 2001. Natural Criteria i, ii, iii, iv.
  • One of the first four natural World Heritage sites to be established.

Further Reading

  • A Bibliography of the Galapagos Islands 1535-1995 by Snell, H. et al. is available from the Secretary General, the Charles Darwin Foundation, Quito.
  • Acharya, K. (2000). Paradise in peril. Life and Nature, Oct. pp.27-31.
  • Anon. (1985). Wildlife on Galápagos still in danger. New Scientist, 6 June. 7 pp.
  • Barry, J. (1995). Memorandum: Seizure of Galapagos National Park and Charles Darwin Research Station. Charles Darwin Foundation. 3pp.
  • Bensted-Smith, R. (1998). The war against aliens in Galapagos. World Conservation 4 /97-1/ 98:40-1.
  • Black, J. (1973). Galápagos Archipiélago del Ecuador.
  • Bliemsrieder, M. (1996) The Galápagos National Park: Under Threat but Not in Danger? Paper for the World Heritage Workshop, IUCN World Conservation Congress, Montreal, Canada. Oct. 1996.
  • Bogno, J. & Espinoza, J. Las Islas Encantadas o el Archipiélago de Colón.
  • Camhi, M. (1995). Industrial fisheries threaten ecological integrity of Galápagos. Conservation Biology.
  • Carrasco, A. (Coord.). 2000. Renomination of the Galápagos Marine Reserve to the World Heritage List (Extension to Galápagos Island). 51 pp.
  • Collar, N. and Andrew, P. (1988). Birds to watch: the ICBP World Checklist of Threatened Birds. ICBP Technical Publication No.8. ICBP, Cambridge, UK. 303 pp. ISBN: 087474301X.
  • de Groot, R. (1983). Tourism and conservation in the Galápagos Islands. Biological Conservation 26: 291-300.
  • Fitter,J. Fitter, D. & Hosking, D.(2002). Wildlife of theGalapagos. Collins Safari Guides, London / Princeton University Press, U.S. 254pp. ISBN: 0691102953.
  • Galapagos Conservation Trust, (2000). Introduction to the Galapagos Islands.
  • Glynn, P.& Wellington, G. (1983). Corals and Coral Reefs of the Galapagos Islands. University of California Press. 330pp.ISBN: 0520047133.
  • Grenier, C. (1994). Rapport sur Migrations, Tourisme et Conservation aux Iles Galápagos. ORSTOM. Nov. 58 pp.
  • Groombridge, B. & (ed.) (1993). 1994 .Red List of Threatened Animals. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. liv + 228pp. ISBN: 2831700310.
  • INEFAN (1993). World Heritage Nomination for the Galápagos Marine Resources Reserve. Instituto Ecuatoriano Forestal y de Areas Naturales y Vida Silvestre, Quito. 15 pp + bibliography.
  • Itow, S. (1992). Altitudinal change in upland endemism, species turnover, and diversity on Isla Santa Cruz, the Galápagos Islands. Pacific Science 46(2): 251-268.
  • IUCN (2002). Report on the State of Conservation of Natural and Mixed Sites Inscribed on the World Heritage List. Gland, Switzerland.
  • IUCN/WWF Project 1316. Operation and Maintenance of the Charles Darwin Research Station.
  • IUCN (1995). Experts Sound Alarm on Galápagos Marine Life. Press Release 31 March. WCU, Gland, Switzerland.
  • Jackson, M.(1999). Galapagos: A Natural History. University of Calgary Press, Alberta, Canada. ISBN: 1895176409.
  • Jennings, S., Brierley, A. & Walker, J. (1994). The inshore fish assemblages of the Galápagos Archipelago. Biological Conservation 70(2): 49-57.
  • Jervis, M. (1994). Galápagos goldrush. IUCN Bulletin 3: 28-31.
  • Lemonick, M. (1995). Can the Galápagos survive? Time. 6 November.
  • McFarland, C. & Cifuentes, M. (1996) Case Study: Galápagos, Ecuador. pp. 135-188 in Dompka, V. (ed.) Human Population, Biodiversity and Protected Areas: Science and Policy Issues. Report of a workshop April 20-25, Washington DC. AAAS, Washington DC. ISBN: 9996108392.
  • McFarland, C. (2000). An Analysis of Nature Tourism in the Galapagos Islands. Charles Darwin Foundation
  • Machado, A. et al. (1994). Diagnostico de Situation de los Islas Galápagos, EU Brussels. 179 pp.
  • Merlin, G.(1995).Use and misuse of the seas around the Galápagos Archipelago. Oryx 29 (2):99-106.
  • Pearce, F. (1995). Galápagos tortoises under siege. New Scientist 16 September.
  • Pearce, F. (1995). On the origin of Revolution. New Scientist 30 September.
  • Perry, R. (ed.) (1986). Key Environments: Galápagos. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland, Cambridge, U.K./ Pergamon Press Ltd., Oxford, UK. 321 pp. ISBN: 0080279961.
  • Porter, D. (in press). Galápagos Islands Red Data Bulletin.
  • Powell, J. & Gibbs, J. (1995). A Report from Galápagos. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 9 Sept.
  • Robinson, G. (1982). Antipatharian Corals (Black corals) of the Galápagos Islands: Biology, distribution and abundance. Project proposal.
  • Robinson, G. (1983). A marine park in the Galápagos. Noticias de Galápagos 37: 9-13.
  • Snell, H. (1999). The realities and distribution of biological diversity in the Galapagos. Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Pacific Division 18 (1): 82.
  • Stone, C., Loope, L. and Smith, C. (1987). Conservation Biology in the Galápagos Archipelago: Perspectives from Hawai'i. Unpublished report. Hawai'i National Park. 23 pp.
  • Stone, R. (1995). Fishermen threaten Galápagos. Science, 3 February.
  • Swash, A. & Still, R. (2000). Birds, Mammals and Reptiles of the Galapagos Islands. Pica Press, E.Sussex, U.K./ Yale University Press, U.S.168pp.ISBN: 0300115326.
  • Thorton, I. (1971). Darwin's Islands: A Natural History of the Galápagos. Natural History Press, New York. ISBN: 0385074883.
  • UNDP/UNESCO (1974). Plan Maestro para la Proteccion y Uso del Parque Nacional Galápagos.
  • UNDP/UNESCO ECU/68/013, UNDP/FAO ECU/71/522/ (1974). Documento de Trabajo. Quito.
  • UNEP/IUCN (1988). Coral Reefs of the World. Volume 1: Atlantic and Eastern Pacific. UNEP Regional Seas Directories and Bibliographies. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland / Cambridge, UK / UNEP, Nairobi, Kenya. 373 pp.
  • UNESCO World Heritage Bureau (1997). Report on the 21st Session of the World Heritage Committee, Paris.
  • UNESCO World Heritage Bureau (1998). Report on the 22nd Session of the World Heritage Committee, Paris.
  • UNESCO World Heritage Bureau (1999). Report on the 23rd Session of the World Heritage Committee, Paris.
  • UNESCO World Heritage Bureau (2002). Report on the 26th Session of the World Heritage Committee, Paris.
  • WCPA-Marine/WWF MPA Management Effectiveness Initiative (2001?). Pilot Site profile. Galápagos Islands Marine Reserve. WCPA.
  • White, A. & Epler, B.(eds) (1972). Galápagos Guide. Imprenta Europa, Quito.
  • World Heritage News (2001). Oil Spill in the Galápagos National Park (Ecuador).
  • WWF (1995). WWF calls for immediate halt to fishing in the Galápagos. W.W.F. News Release. Jan.17, 1995. 1p.

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme- World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC). Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme- World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



M, U. (2009). Galápagos National Park & Galápagos Marine Resources Reserve, Ecuador. Retrieved from


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