After two years of scientific study and political discussion, the Ecuadorian government has announced the creation of a new marine sanctuary in the Galapagos.

The Galapagos, which lies around 560 miles off the west coast of Ecuador, is renowned as one of the most bio-diverse regions on the planet. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is home to more than 2,900 species of fish, invertebrates and marine mammals, as well as countless terrestrial and avian species. Nearly 20 percent of all marine life in the Galapagos Islands is endemic, meaning that it’s found nowhere else on Earth, and now there’s a new marine sanctuary in the Galapagos aiming to protect some of it.

The islands are also home to the world’s greatest biomass of sharks, and the new marine sanctuary is geared especially towards their conservation. Under its terms, a no-take zone incorporating some 15,000 square miles of ocean has been established around the archipelago’s most northern islands, Darwin and Wolf. Other, smaller no-take zones have also been created elsewhere in the islands. Within these new protected areas, fishing of any kind will now be illegal, and other extractive industries are also banned. In total, 32 percent of the waters surrounding the Galapagos will now enjoy complete protection.

The new marine sanctuary in the Galapagos is not the first in the islands. Created in 1998, the Galapagos Marine Reserve offers partial protection to just over 50,000 square miles of surrounding ocean. Industrial fishing is illegal within the reserve’s boundaries, but up until now, small-scale fishing has been permitted. In recent years, this loophole has made it difficult for authorities to keep tabs on fishing activities within the reserve, and illegal fishing has skyrocketed. In particular, the Galapagos’ incredible density of sharks has attracted the attention of the finning trade, forcing conservationists and government officials to take further action.

Nevertheless, although shark populations in the Galapagos have undoubtedly decreased, Charles Darwin Foundation scientist Pelayo Salinas de León claims that the area is still one of “the few places in the world’s oceans where sharks are very abundant.” More than 30 species of shark have been recorded in the Galapagos, and for many (including the endangered scalloped hammerhead) the islands are believed to provide a key breeding ground. As the lead author of a recent study documenting the islands’ marine biodiversity, Salinas speaks from first-hand experience when he says that the Galapagos offers an insight into “how the oceans once were,” and could be again.

With shark populations around the world in catastrophic decline, the new marine sanctuary in the Galapagos and ones in other vital areas have never been more important. In an attempt to ensure that the no-take zones are respected, the new marine sanctuary will also involve increased surveillance as a precaution against illegal fishing. The Ecuadorian government hopes that its actions will not only help to restore shark populations in the Galapagos, but also that by providing a safe area for sharks to breed, they will also aid struggling species in other areas of the world. In addition, the new sanctuary should help to raise the global profile of issues like shark-finning and illegal fishing.

The “pristine waters around the Galapagos archipelago are precious not just for Ecuadorians, but for the whole balance of our ocean systems,” says Ecuador’s environment minister Daniel Ortega Pacheco. “Shark populations in steep decline around the world come here to rest and breed and we want to guarantee complete sanctuary for them.” Protecting the Galapagos’ incredible marine heritage isn’t all about sharks, however. The new sanctuary should also mean a financial gain for the country, with a 2015 economic report stating that while a dead shark generates just $200, a live shark in the Galapagos has a tourism value of around $5.4 million.

To that end, marine-based tourism generates almost $178 million per year in the Galapagos and accounts of one-third of all jobs within the archipelago. In order to ensure that the new sanctuary is supported by native Ecuadorians, the National Geographic Foundation is offering compensation to the local fishing cooperatives that were previously permitted to fish within the new no-take zones. Scientific expeditions and eco-tours will be allowed continued access to these areas, which are sure to hold a greater attraction than ever before for divers and wildlife enthusiasts as the positive effects of the fishing ban become apparent.

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