Diving The Galapagos

a blog for DiveTheGalapagos.com

New Galapagos Regulations and Permits

boletin_2010_07_12_061As some have noted, not much has been written here for awhile.  That’s primarily due to how busy it has been for the last 4 months.  So let me see what I can do in terms of a catch up.  It’s been an active time in the Galapagos.

The most exciting news is that, of the 14 (I think) new permits for dive liveaboards in the Galapagos, the first one is now in the water!  The Humboldt Explorer got off to a slightly rocky start due to engine problems, but when will a new boat ever go into the water without some growing pains?  The important thing is that she is the first of the new dive permits to begin operation. 

Now, let’s backtrack for a moment. After a grueling period of accepting project applications for new liveaboards, the winners were named.  Almost immediately, a group that consisted on paper of fishermen, sued the National Park claiming the process of awarding the permits was both illegal and corrupt.  This case has lingered on for over a year and a decision is expected any day now from the Supreme Court.  If the Supreme Court upholds the permits, then things will move forward as they are tentatively proceeding now.  If, on the other hand, the Supreme Court decides in favor of the fishermen, well, the Park will need to open a new round of solitications and award permits all over again.

When people inside the Galapagos try to explain to people outside the Galapagos that it’s complicated or tricky, this is just one example of what they mean.  The Galapagos is perhaps the most regulated part of the planet that isn’t under some regime rule.  And with good reason.  As is often said, if we can’t save the Galapagos, then there’s no hope for anywhere on the planet.

Hard to imagine a negative outcome after so many invested years and so much money simply in the process of applying for a permit, but you never know.  One small example of what was one small part of the process was providing notarized copies of years worth of zarpes.  A zarpe is the document a boat receives every time it sails out of port…permission from the Capitania to depart, as it were.  Now if you are a daily dive operator, that means you get a zarpe every day of the week.  You can imagine the expense of notarizing a few thousand zarpes.  One person with a permit said that he was going to put all the documentation in his boat to see if it would sink the boat.

Another thing is that the Park intends to drastically regulate where any liveaboards can dive from 2011 on.  All cruises in the Galapagos are being regulated to 15 day itineraries. Cruise operators are free to break up this 15 days however they wish to -7/8; 5/5/5; 10/5, etc. Think of Day 1 as the same as Day 15 in that the boat is in a port to drop off passengers, refuel and pick up new passengers.  This is being done for the sustainable good of the sites being visited, whether the site is a land visit or dive site.

For Naturalist cruises, this means they cannot visit the same site twice during that 15 day itinerary.  For Naturalist cruises, this can mean a morning visit and an afternoon visit.  For dive cruises, it’s usually just drop off, refuel, pick up and check dive.  For dive cruises, the Park is using a study to determine how many groups per day will be allowed at any given dive site and how many groups at the same time at any given dive site. As of this writing, the intent is to limit dive cruises to 2 days at Darwin and 2 days at Wolf per 15 days.  They are also trying to restrict the number of dives per day at each location.  And as has been rumored for the better part of 2 years, it seems the Park will begin to enforce the ‘no non-land accessible land visits’ for dive cruises.  It seems those who do these now do plan to defend their current rights to make land visits.

So this is where my opinion comes in.  I have discussed this with various scientists, dive guides, etc.  No one so far offers me much in the way of argument that sufficiently alters my opinion.  Granted, we all know the old cliche about opinions, nevertheless…

There are about a handful of known sites left in the world where hammerheads school in numbers and the northern islands of Darwin and Wolf are two such sites.  In my opinion, the only thing that keeps the aleteros (shark finners) out is that the divers are there. There is one station at Wolf, a boat anchored in the bay called the Tiburon Martillo, a ‘floating base’. This was absent for the last 8 months while it went into dry dock for repairs.  There is no one patrolling Darwin, 3 hours away which is better known for larger hammerhead populations.  So if the divers aren’t there, no one is there to stop the massacre.

I don’t doubt for a moment that the presence of dive boats wards off illegal fishing. Just two weeks ago, I was at a site in the central islands rarely dived any more due to distance/expense for local operators.  Due to congestion, I couldn’t dive.  And while our divers were down, 3 illegal fishing boats came to fish.  That we, a sole boat, were there did not defer them for a moment.  Me yelling did nothing.  They just continued dropping their buoys about 30 feet away from the rock. When I grabbed a camera and started taking photos of their boats which they knew I could use to identify them, well that seemed to be much more effective than nicely asking or acting like a crazy gringa yelling.  With that, they covered their faces so they weren’t personally identifiable.  And when they realized I was changing into a wetsuit (with the intention of cutting and confiscating their buoys), they played me.  I was torn between getting photos of each boat and cutting bouys.  I opted for the photo which meant leaving the first bouy to get close enough to the other boats providing a window of opportunity for the first boat to return to gather their bouy.

Then, they waited at a distance for us to leave.  During the surface interval, I asked the captain to merely circle the island.  We would not be visible on the other side of the island and I was prepared to go into the water if they had their bouys out when we came back around.  Instead, miraculously another local dive boat showed up and with two boats there, the 3 fishing boats finally gave up and left.

Same theory applies on a much grander scale at Wolf and Darwin.  Count on Costa Rican aleteros finning to their heart’s content on days when no one is there.  And for the last few years, there have been lots of days when no one was there.  To me, logic says the diminished shark population most likely has more to do with open season from aleteros than divers in the water with sharks.  No one debates that in the central islands, so why the same logic is not  applied to an unpatrolled site like Darwin is beyond me.

So I say diving is the best protection the Darwin hammerhead population has against populations diminishing, not the enemy.  Divers who dive our northern islands are all advanced divers.  No one is allowed to act irresponsibly nor do most advanced divers want to abuse the wildlife.  Yes, way too many seem to have some twisted desire to touch whale sharks, but most boats wisely have a policy of “Touch the whale shark and your diving is over for the rest of the trip.”

Having said all that, I do agree wholeheartedly that how many boats are allowed to dive either Darwin or Wolf at the same time indeed should be limited to no more than 2.  And those 2 need to stagger their dive times so no more than 1 boat has divers in the water at the same time.  Granted, I say that more because I think it provides a far richer experience for the diver.  I have been at Darwin and Cabo Marshall with 32 divers in the water.  It’s no fun.  You can’t figure out who’s shaking their noise maker and to have 16 divers ascend on top of you is the last thing I, as a diver, want when I’m in a location as remote as these sites are in Galapagos.  In terms of site sustainability, you still have 32 divers in the water on any given day.  But we don’t have reefs to protect. And few are anything more than sideline spectators to the hammerheads.  Yes, bubbles scare them, but I would imagine that if they were that scared or susceptible to altered behavior due to bubbles on the sidelines of their arena, they would have altered their behavior years ago.  It’s not like diving there just started in the last couple of years. Time has passed and they’re still there.

I am also of the opinion that it is touching animals and interacting in a physical manner (feeding, touching, chasing, finning, fishing) that is more likely to alter their behavior than watching from a respectful distance.  I’m no scientist, just a diver, but that’s my opinion and if someone can share data that alters my opinion, I’m all ears.

Now, to further speak out in setting where no one speaks out, I find it amazing the liveaboards don’t contribute more towards local research and sustainability.  And I’m not limiting that to dive cruises.  Of the money that is generated by tourism in the Galapagos, studies show that only 15% stays in the Galapagos.  That there is not a per person fee that goes directly to research and sustainability is inconceivable in my opinion.

Let’s take a look at only the liveaboards.  With only the 5.5 boats now operational, let’s take a low capacity rate of 10 divers per departure.  10 divers x 5 boats x 12 months equals 600 divers per year.  Plus the seasonal departure of another 160 divers, you have conservatively 760 divers per year on liveaboards.  If every person was charged a $100 conservation fee, that’s $76,000 per year.  If every liveaboard offered space to scientists when they had available space, that would help even further.  I find it astounding that even today, no one knows where the whale sharks migrate to when they leave Darwin.  Astounding.  I think that the price of Galapagos liveaboards is so expensive, the operators themselves should be donating this rather than increasing the costs to guests since, although it is very costly to operate in the Galapagos, it’s abundantly clear it’s also very profitable.

One thing that I recently learned that I find relatively amazing is that, on the island best known for either shark finning or aiding and abetting those who do, it would only take the creation of 9 jobs…9 economic alternatives…to end shark finning.  Is there some reason these aleteros can’t transition to other jobs like counting baby shark populations, patrolling the coastal waterways as Park guards, etc?  The only answer is funding for training, for resources, etc.  And on a side note, I find one paradox intriquing.  There seem to be plenty of baby black tips in the mangroves and a scarcity of adults whereas there seem to be plenty of adult hammerheads and a scarcity of babies.

Every new permit includes a sustainability project commitment.  Every new permit holder is a fisherman.  Every new liveaboard must be owned (on paper) by that fishermen.  There’s been a long history of no regulations around those with cupos renting  to those who will pay them the most for the lease.  Under new regulations, that is now grounds for losing your permit.

One of the goals for sustainability has been to transistion fishermen to tourism.  It’s virtually the only economic alternative there is, but no one is offering enough training so these fishermen know anything about tourism.  So much of the culture thinks only in terms of what they can make immediately.  Understandable since they have lead a life that was day to day up until now.  And now, long term vision through education is lacking.  Imagine giving construction contracts for skyscrapers to homeless people as a way to get them off the street in New York City and it’s not a far stretch in terms of an analogy.  A better analogy might be a gun or needle exchange programs since exchanging fishing permits for points towards winning a ‘tur navegable de buceo” permit was a primary way for fishermen to win points.  And those with the highest points won the permits.  Intentions are admirable, but there’s a cliche about that, too.

The good news is that the onus is actually now on the liveaboards themselves to hire and train locals, in a regulatory fashion.  Too many operators up until now bring people from the mainland where trained talent is more common than in the islands themselves.  Tightening up on that will both reduce immigration and direct more income to the local economy as opposed to the 85% that never reaches the Galapagos.  So things are certainly changing relative to how it’s been.  It seems the intentions are good, so we can only hope the results play out for the common good of both the environment and the population. And of course, each operator should more proactively do their part to contribute to a positive outcome.

I think sometimes it’s better to come from the outside rather than be bogged down by full knowledge of all the politics that more often than not, clog the wheel rather than grease it.  Doesn’t always make life smoother to voice an opinion when a code of silence is all but law, but some of us are just wired that way, much to our own discomfort.

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