Rights of Nature to Save the Endangered Sharks of the Galapagos

 Hammerhead shark Vlad Karpinskiy @Creative Commons

Hammerhead shark Vlad Karpinskiy @Creative Commons

By Shelia Hu and Michelle Bender

The Galápagos Islands are a haven for sharks

With 34 of the globe’s 440 known species, the Galapagos Islands have the highest abundance of sharks in the world.[1]

A UNESCO World Heritage center, the Galapagos lies about 1,000 kilometers from the Ecuadorian Coast. Three major tectonic plates —Nazca, Cocos and Pacific— meet here. The ongoing seismic and volcanic activity create a truly unique ecosystem. The Galapagos achieved fame in scientific circles when Charles Darwin published the “Voyage of the Beagle” in 1839.[2]

The Galápagos Marine Reserve is one of the largest marine reserves in the world, covering a total area of 130,000 square kilometers of Pacific Ocean and featuring a dynamic mix of tropical and Antarctic currents and rich areas of upwelling water.

Consequently, the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR) contains an extraordinary range of biological communities, hosting such diverse organisms as penguins, fur seals, tropical corals, and large schools of hammerhead sharks. The GMR has a high proportion of endemic marine species – between 10% and 30% in most taxonomic groups – and supports the coastal wildlife of the terrestrial Galapagos National Park (GNP). It also appears to play an important role in the migratory routes of pelagic organisms such as marine turtles, cetaceans and the world’s largest fish, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus).[3]

In 2016, the President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, announced the creation of a new marine sanctuary to protect the water around the Galapagos Islands. The sanctuary is designed to fall around the islands of Darwin and Wolf in order to protect the world’s greatest concentration of sharks.[4]

The area will include 39,000 square kilometers within the Galapagos Marine Reserve, an area in which industrial fishing has been banned since 1998 but where smaller fishing operations are allowed.[5] The new shark sanctuary will mean several areas within the GMR will be designated as “no-take” zones where no fishing of any kind will be allowed. The sanctuary will protect around 32% of waters surrounding the Galapagos, with no fishing activity, mining, or oil drilling allowed at all.[6]

The extra step of protection is needed as the ecosystem faces the increased stressors of climate change, industrial trawlers, and illegal fishing.

  Whale Shark Vlad Karpinkskiy @Creative Commons

Whale Shark Vlad Karpinkskiy @Creative Commons

The mystery of the pregnant whale sharks

The largest fish in the ocean, the whale shark eats plankton and other small fish – collected as the whale shark swims. Preferring warm waters, whale sharks populate all tropical seas. They are known to migrate every spring to the continental shelf of the central west coast of Australia. The coral spawning of the area's Ningaloo Reef provides the whale shark with an abundant supply of plankton.[7]

There isn’t much else known about this type of shark and its social habits. They haven’t been studied as well as other sea creatures, according to the IUCN.[8]

The whale sharks in the Galapagos Marine Reserve, unlike elsewhere, tend to be large mature females (99.8%), and over 90% appear to be pregnant.[9] To find out more about why these pregnant whales stopover at the Galapagos (but with no sign of newborns), the Galapagos Whale Shark Project launched. After tracking it was found that Darwin island provides an important point for navigation for the sharks, on their way to feeding grounds in the Pacific Ocean.[10]

Hammerhead nursery found in Galápagos waters

A nursery for scalloped hammerhead sharks was recently discovered along the coast of the Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos, good news for better understanding and protecting an endangered species.[11]

Their wide-set eyes give them a better visual range than most other sharks. And by spreading their highly specialized sensory organs over their wide, mallet-shaped heads, they can more thoroughly scan the ocean for food. One group of sensory organs is the ampullae of Lorenzini. It allows sharks to detect, among other things, the electrical fields created by prey animals. The hammerheads’ increased ampullae sensitivity allows them to find their favorite meal, stingrays, which usually bury themselves under the sand.[12]

After a nine to ten month gestation, scalloped hammerhead sharks give birth to their pups who can then slowly mature into adulthood in the well-protected, food-rich environment safe from many of their natural predators (like other sharks) in the open ocean. [13]

Threats facing sharks in Galápagos waters

Sharks are under serious threat around the globe. It is estimated that up to 70 million sharks are killed by people every year, due to both commercial and recreational fishing. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified 64 of the 440 shark species as endangered, and one-third at risk of extinction, according to its 'Red List' criteria.[14] Sharks are caught intentionally or as accidental "by-catch" in virtually all types of fisheries worldwide.[15]

Most sharks are long-living species that grow slowly, mature late, and have low reproduction rates. These biological factors make sharks particularly vulnerable to overfishing and mean that populations can be slow to recover once depleted. The continuous depletion and even eradication of these top predators in the structure of many marine habitats will have catastrophic consequences for ecosystems such as coral reefs and may cause the extinction of many other interdependent species.[16]

While sharks in Galapagos are protected by the Galapagos Marine Reserve, they roam quite far and can be affected by illegal fishing and bycatch in fisheries targeted at other species.[17]

Over 6,600 dead sharks, mostly hammerheads but also silky, thresher and mako sharks— which are off-limits to industrial fishers within the marine reserve — were found on an unauthorized ship in the Galapagos Reserve in August 2017. An Ecuadorean judge has since convicted the ship's 20 crew members of possessing and transporting protected species. In addition to prison sentences, the ruling also fined them $5.9 million.

"The sentence marks a milestone in regional environmental law and an opportunity to survive for migratory species," the country's Ministry of Environment said in a statement. This case also marked the first conviction of an environmental crime in 14 years of Galapagos law and set a precedent for prosecuting shark finning and other crimes against nature in the Galapagos (Franco Fernando, 2015).

 Isla de San Cristobal, Diego Delsa

Isla de San Cristobal, Diego Delsa

Ecuador, a world leader in Rights of Nature

In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to adopt Rights of Nature into its Constitution. The Constitution, endows “Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists” with inalienable rights to “exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.”

The Constitution also gives nature the right to restoration and the people the right to “live in a healthy and ecologically balanced environment that guarantees sustainability and the good way of living.” It is the responsibility of the Ecuadorian State to “respect the rights of nature, preserve a healthy environment and use natural resources rationally, sustainably and durably” and to provide incentives to the citizens to “protect nature and to promote respect for all the elements comprising an ecosystem.”[18]

Ocean Rights can help the sharks of the Galapagos

Earth Law Center is working with local partners through the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature to ensure the constitutional amendment is implemented with respect to ocean governance.

Implementing ocean rights and expanding protection of the Galapagos, will also help Ecuador achieve its goals within the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and United Nations Sustainable Development goals; including expanding marine protected areas to 8170 square kilometers.[19]

The Marine Reserve represents the beginning of the desire to apply rights of nature to ocean protection. The Special Law of the Galapagos’s guiding principle for governance is ‘‘An equilibrium among the society, the economy, and nature; cautionary measures to limit risks; respect for the rights of nature; restoration in cases of damage; and citizen participation.” However, in order to ensure activities within the Reserve respect the rights of nature, there needs to be legally binding provisions that do so within the management plan.

One way to implement the rights of nature in the Galapagos, is to pass a decree declaring the Reserve (and proposed Sanctuary) as a legal entity, subject to basic rights. Defining in law the Reserve as a legal entity recognizes the area as a living whole, and legally requires that the State protects the rights of the ecosystem and species within.

Similarly the management plan must explicitly define the highest objective for management as conserving the Reserve in as close to its natural state as possible. Protecting and restoring the ecosystem for its own benefit can occur only if conservation objectives are prioritized over human-centered objectives, such as economic development. Secondary objectives can include tourism, fisheries, recreation, education and scientific research, but these must also be explicitly defined as secondary objectives.

In countries, such as New Zealand, guardians are being appointed on the management boards for the protected area that represent the ecosystem’s interests and ensures it’s rights are not being violated; they will review decisions, monitor compliance and develop new rules to protect the Reserve. Such an approach can also work in Ecuador, allowing the guardians to use their standing to bring legal action upon parties involved with activities directly affecting the health and well-being of the Reserve.

Finally, management must fully take into account all species interactions and land-based activities. In order to manage human activity holistically within the Reserve, criteria must be developed to ensure activities respect the rights of nature. Such criteria can include:

  • Reflecting on the true cost of our activities and their impacts, which includes costs to the marine ecosystem and its ability to renew and restore itself.
  • Evaluate decisions using attributes and scores that assign the highest scores to those activities and regulations that lead to the fulfillment of the conservation objectives.
  • Application of the Precautionary Principle which puts the burden of proof on those wishing to take potentially harmful action – to prevent harm before it occurs.
  • Development of alternative livelihoods that allow for both human and ecological interests to thrive. Key considerations for Earth-Law centered ecological criteria may include:
  • Impacts to keystone species, such as sharks, are given priority in decision making.

The Earth Law Framework for Marine Protected Areas further outlines how rights of nature can be implemented in the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Employing this framework will help Ecuador implement rights of nature throughout their oceanscape.

Act today and join the growing global movement of Earth Law by:

More about Global Alliance for Rights of Nature (GARN)

The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature (the “Alliance”) is a network of organizations and individuals committed to the universal adoption and implementation of legal systems that recognize, respect and enforce “Rights of Nature” and to making the idea of Rights of Nature an idea whose time has come. Find out more at http://therightsofnature.org/


[1] https://galapagosconservation.org.uk/sharks-galapagos-islands/; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/mar/21/ecuador-creates-galapagos-marine-sanctuary-to-protect-sharks

[2] https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1

[3] https://www.galapagoswhaleshark.org/the-project/why-study-whale-sharks/

[4] “Ecuador creates new marine sanctuary to protect sharks”, 21 March 2016, Galapagos Conservancy, https://www.galapagos.org/newsroom/new-marine-sanctuary/ Accessed: 7 June 2018

[5] “Ecuador creates new marine sanctuary to protect sharks”, 21 March 2016, Galapagos Conservancy, https://www.galapagos.org/newsroom/new-marine-sanctuary/ Accessed: 7 June 2018

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/fish/w/whale-shark/

[8] https://www.livescience.com/55412-whale-sharks.html

[9] https://galapagosconservation.org.uk/projects/whale-shark-monitoring/

[10] https://www.galapagoswhaleshark.org/the-project/what-we-discovered-so-far/

[11] https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/01/hammerhead-shark-nursery-discovery-galapagos-spd/

[12] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/fish/group/hammerhead-sharks/

[13] https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/01/hammerhead-shark-nursery-discovery-galapagos-spd/

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2009/jun/25/sharks-extinction-iucn-red-list

[15] http://sharksmou.org/threats-to-sharks

[16] http://sharksmou.org/threats-to-sharks

[17] https://galapagosconservation.org.uk/sharks-galapagos-islands/

[18] Republic of Ecuador, Constitution of 2008, available at: http://pdba.georgetown.edu/Constitutions/Ecuador/englis h08.html.

[19] Ibid.