12 images

No visitors, no income: The impact of Covid-19 on the Galapagos - and how we can help

30 December 2020• Written by Sam Fortescue

Predatory fishing and the collapse of tourism due to Covid-19 is putting the Galápagos Islands at risk, reports Sam Fortescue

Fiddi Angermeyer is a worried man. Like many people in tourism, his luxury charter business, Angermeyer Cruises, has been hard hit by Covid-19. Since the start of lockdown, there have been no international guests aboard his three-masted barquentine, or his 49-metre motor yacht. No visitors mean no income, so he is staring ruin in the face. It also means no revenue for the islands he calls home – islands he shares with dozens of species of animal and plant found nowhere else on the planet. Without the protection paid for by tourism, they are very much at risk. For Angermeyer’s home is the crucible of evolutionary theory; Darwin’s laboratory; the Galápagos Islands.

Credit: Brandelet/Shutterstock.com

No visitors, no income

The challenge facing the islands is an existential one. Up to 90 per cent of their $800 million (£618m) annual income is linked to tourism, which also provides the money to police and protect this unique biosphere. Without it, thousands of inhabitants risk falling into poverty and illegal fishing in the marine reserve will quickly increase. Angermeyer spells it out: “There are already people going hungry and depending on food banks. However, this can only last so long. The danger being that the Galápagos could be destroyed and the fishing industry could thrive. Without tourism there will be no natural park. Without a natural park we don’t have tourism. They go hand in hand.”

Dolores Gangotena, founder of Quasar Expeditions, takes a slightly less gloomy view. “The population of the Galápagos has, at their reach, some of the most important resources for healthy survival,” she tells me. “They have the best fish you can find in the whole of Ecuador, they have plenty of vegetables that they grow locally and also plenty of dairy products produced locally. If the situation were to get ‘apocalyptic’, no one in the Galápagos Islands would starve, even if most means of transportation to the islands were completely shut off.”

Local farmers, wearing protective as a measure to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, sell their products to residents, in San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. For many islanders, the pandemic has left them to meditate on their relationships with nature, industry and travel
Credit: Adrian Vasquez/AP/Shutterstock

The problem, she says, is more one of ready cash. “The work situation is what’s really tough at the moment, since about 95 per cent of the islands’ population live off of the tourism industry. There is very little income for these people at the moment.”

Judy Carvalhal, who runs Enchanted Expeditions, says that business in the area has simply “ended”. “We are surviving on our reserves and have had to let go of most of our employees. There are many families here in the Galápagos that have no money to buy food. Those who can are helping these people. Community support  is what is keeping people fed here. The biggest  risk is illegal fishing. There was already a threat here recently by some fishermen wanting  to longline.”

The Ecuadorean government, which controls the Galápagos Islands from Quito, 1,400 kilometres to the east, has been struggling with its own problems. Oil prices  are bumping along the bottom, and the country has been hit hard by the pandemic. Cases peaked in early August, when more than 1,650 new daily infections were reported in a population of  17 million. With over 6,000 deaths to date,  the healthcare system has been overwhelmed. Some grieving families on the mainland have been forced to bury their loved ones in cardboard coffins, but in the worst-affected areas, cadavers spent days in body bags in people’s homes before they could be collected, and the images  of coffins lying among rubbish bags in the street are shocking.

A sea lion sits outside a hotel that is closed because of the new coronavirus pandemic, in San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands
Credit: Adrian Vasquez/AP/Shutterstock

How the islands have handled Covid-19

Due to its remoteness, the Galápagos Islands have been spared such horror. After lockdown was announced in March, no one was allowed to enter the area until 15 July, when domestic travel restarted. It has helped to keep Covid-19 cases there down to less than 150. “The local government here has done a good job in controlling the spread of the virus and, though we are not Covid-free yet, there seems to be good management and awareness,” says Carvalhal.

It is just as well, because the islands’ ability to deal with acute health issues is limited. “There have been some donations of ventilators for the Galápagos,” says Gangotena. “Some of them have been donated by tourism operators and others by international entities. Nevertheless, if a patient’s case is really difficult, they have to be transported back to the continent for treatment by means of air evacuation.”

For seven weeks now due to the new coronavirus pandemic, not a single tourist has arrived at the UNESCO World Heritage site that inspired Charles Darwin
Credit: Adrian Vasquez/AP/Shutterstock

But local operators have a secret weapon when it comes to Covid. Tourism in the islands has long focused on minimising and managing the contamination of its unique flora and fauna by careless visitors. Tours are very strictly controlled, with only small groups going ashore at a time, and only on specific itineraries employing strict biosecurity measures. Most charter operations involve boats with a capacity of less than 15 guests – a world away from the rowdy, teeming cruise ships that tour other waters. That means operators are already experienced at protecting against infection.

Recognising the precariousness of existence in the Galápagos Islands, and the low risk of contracting Covid-19 there, the Ecuadorean government lifted the ban on domestic travel in July. Visitors are required to show a negative Covid test taken less than 96 hours prior to arrival, but there is no need for quarantine. The islands reopened to international visitors on 15 August – a key step towards securing their future, according to operators there. “Galápagos is a very expensive destination within Ecuador, even for locals,” says Gangotena. “It is by far the most expensive province of the country and we all know that for the island economy to recover it will have to be through international tourism, not local visitors.”

Credit: Kimberly Shavender/Shutterstock.com

Up to 275,000 tourists visited the islands in 2019 – double the numbers of a decade before. And while Ecuadorean visitors pay $6 to enter the national park area, other nationalities are charged $100. With more than half the entry fee going directly into conservation, the national park service is losing millions of dollars of income due to the lockdown. “If tourism does not come back soon, the entire institutional framework that protects the islands’ ecosystem is bound to collapse for lack of funding,” warns Fernando Ortiz, marine biologist and expert guide with Angermeyer Cruises.

In the meantime, Angermeyer believes that a cash injection is needed to keep the islands going in the short term. “What the Galápagos needs to survive is capital, to reactivate and keep the charter boat fleet going,” he says. “The Ecuadorean government is broke, so the only hope is foreign investment that operators could borrow from to be ready when tourism comes back.” Tourism is worth $800 million a year to the islands, but Angermeyer doesn’t believe it would require such a large amount – “Perhaps $25 million; enough to weather the storm”. After that, the money could be repaid to the lender or put into much-needed conservation, he says. “If a superyacht owner donated, I would make sure that they get an honorary cruising permit for their yacht for the Galápagos.”

Tourists on a zodiac excursion photographing blue-footed boobies sitting on lava rocks at Black Turtle Cove, Santa Cruz Island
Credit: Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Conservation is key

Conservation is key if the Galápagos’ unique biosphere is to survive. As recently as last August, scientists from the Charles Darwin Foundation based in Santa Cruz reported the discovery of 30 new deep-sea invertebrates off the islands. But despite the protection afforded by UNESCO World Heritage Site status, and by the internationally recognised marine reserve, illegal fishing is a growing menace. During the summer there were mounting concerns over a huge fleet of mainly Chinese fishing boats, which had massed just outside the islands’ waters in search of rich pickings. The BBC reported 260 boats, but Ortiz and Angermeyer say the true figure is closer to 340. They are busy organising a fact-finding voyage under the banner of the US charity Wild Aid, with support from the Ecuadorean navy.

“What they do is not illegal, even though many of those are defined as ‘non-co-operating’ boats, meaning ghost boats that fish without respecting safety, ecological or even pollution disposal regulations accepted worldwide,” says Ortiz. “But they directly affect the food supply of many of the spectacular marine fauna that live on the islands.”

Activists call for the Ecuadorian government to instil tighter fishing regulations in the area
Credit: Jose Jacome/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Sharks are particularly at risk: in 2017, a Chinese boat was found inside the reserve with 300 tonnes of shark in its hold. Targets include hammerhead, Galápagos, black-tipped, silky, whale and tiger shark, all of which are protected by law. But many other vulnerable endangered species are affected, either because their prey is being overfished or because they form unwitting by-catch of these unscrupulous fishing techniques. Among them are manta rays, sea turtles and waved albatross.

China claims that its distant-water fishing fleet numbers around 2,600 boats, according to investigative journalist Ian Urbina. But figures from the Overseas Development Institute estimate closer to 17,000. Ortiz is in little doubt about the country responsible for much of the damaging fishing on the Galápagos’ doorstep. “Sadly enough, most of the plastic bottles drifting ashore have Chinese brands and characters on them, and judging by their condition it’s easy to tell they haven’t travelled all the way from Asia,” he says. “They were dumped at the limits of the Ecuadorian Exclusive Economic Zone and brought in by the Humboldt Current. The threat is on our doorstep.”

Much of the Ecuadorian province is protected, but a booming tourism industry has meant the wildlife has had to adapt to a growing human presence
Credit: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images for Lumix

Roque Sevilla, the former mayor of Quito, recently told The Guardian that there were plans afoot to protect the islands, because “unchecked Chinese fishing” was “ruining” Ecuador’s efforts to protect marine life in the Galápagos. President Lenin Moreno has also said that his country is working with others in the region to co-ordinate regional support.

Years of science support that view, according to Ortiz. “The highly migratory marine fauna that is found mostly in the Galápagos knows nothing about jurisdictional matters or border lines. The connectivity between places like the Galápagos and Isla Malpelo in Colombia, Isla del Coco in Costa Rica, Coiba in Panama and Revillagigedos in Mexico has been proved many times over.”

The weight of the fishing threat this year has thrown the size of the marine reserve back under the spotlight. For some time, conservationists have been arguing that the protected area needs to be enlarged if it is to be effective. There was no protection at all until 1985, although successive commissions recommended at first a 4.8-kilometre limit around each island, then more. And if 70,000 square kilometres sounds like a lot, that amounts to a mere 64-kilometre-wide fence around the islands – that’s the distance that the tiger shark can cover every day in the search for food.

The sun shines on a poster advertising island tours and shuttered businesses ordered closed by the government as a measure to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, in San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Credit: Adrian Vasquez/AP/Shutterstock

“The marine-protected area should be as big as possible – we’ve proposed something that goes to the 200-mile limit of the Exclusive Economic Zone,” explains Max Bello, policy adviser for non-profit Mission Blue. “We are getting close. With the Chinese pressure it’s clear that the pressure of fishing is increasing. The extension could happen right now if the president and government keep their promises. All the stakeholders, including the tuna fishermen, should agree that a marine-protected area will be a positive thing for them. It will be good for fish, sustainability and long-term business.”

Taking your yacht to the Galápagos

While most visitors to the Galápagos Islands join or fully book one of the 50-strong charter fleet, you can get your own yacht certified to cruise there too. It is a relatively complex and expensive process, especially for larger boats, so it tends to appeal only to very high-net-worth individuals and those with extreme privacy concerns. In a typical year, just 20 or so superyachts will enter the islands in this way; during the current Covid-19 crisis, of course, that figure is much lower. But the owner of one boat, the 39-metre Vitters-built carbon sloop G2, was determined to reach the islands as soon as it was possible in mid-August.

Ricardo Arenas, general manager of Superyacht Galápagos, was the agent on the ground. “I had to move a lot between the local authorities, pressing and pushing for the creation of a sanitary protocol for the reception of foreign ships for Galápagos,” he tells me. “The owner [of G2] came sailing on board from a Caribbean island, and his reception in the Galápagos was very happy, since it gave locals hope that it is possible. The wife and daughter arrived by air from London to Baltra, and that was also another challenge. Today they are already on a private itinerary, among sea lions, birds, and breathing the purest air on the planet.”

If you decide to travel to the islands in your own boat, you need to show a negative Covid-19 test result taken before embarking on the passage to the Galápagos, and for most that will mean getting tested in Panama after transiting the canal. Galápagos authorities also insist on an eight-day quarantine. Sensibly, time at sea since the last port can be included in this tally.

After that, the procedure is largely the same as it ever was. Boats need to have their hulls cleaned of invasive species, and the interiors must be fumigated for the same reason. Various fees are payable on arrival, including the Galápagos National Park entrance fee, an inspection fee of $50 per person, residence control of $20, biosecurity payments of $200 per yacht, migration of $32 per boat and most expensively, a 12- or 13-times multiple of the yacht’s gross tonnage. So for instance, a 500GT boat would pay around $6,000.

Operators in the Galápagos Islands are desperately hoping that visitors will start to return in increasingly large numbers soon. And for intrepid travellers, this may in fact be the best opportunity to visit the islands for generations. Charter companies are offering generous discounts, while smaller visitor numbers guarantee a more personal experience. But the biggest draw remains the animals themselves. “Now you can see the islands after the wildlife has taken over and had a rest from all the tourists,” says Gangotena at Quasar Expeditions. “It’s something you only get to witness once in a lifetime.”