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The application of the adaptive principle to the management and conservation of Isostichopus fuscus in the Galapagos Marine Reserve

Manfred Altamirano1, M. Verónica Toral-Granda1 and Eliécer Cruz2

1Charles Darwin Research Station, Santa Cruz, Galapagos; 2Galapagos National Park Service, Galapagos


Beche-de-mer fishing started in the Galapagos Islands in 1999 after commercial depletion of the populations in mainland Ecuador. The management of this fishing activity has evolved from top-down management to an adaptive and participatory management scheme. This scheme involves the direct participation of the local stakeholders. All decisions approved by a consensus in the local discussion forum (“Junta”) are then set into law by the Government. The strategy is adaptive as it takes into account previous experiences to better the current management of the species. This paper presents a historical overview of the management regime since the 1990s. The authors present a conceptual framework, based on which the regulations have been passed in order to support the management of Isostichopus fuscus on a sustainable level. Changes in the management have been achieved due mainly to two key factors: (i) the innovative participatory system implemented by the Ecuadorian Government for the management of the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR), which enables the equal participation of stakeholders, i.e. science and conservation, tourism, fishing and managers, and (ii) the availability of demographic, biological and ecological information on this species, which acts as a tool for the decisions taken by the stakeholders. Stock assessments at over 60 sites in all fished islands, knowledge of the reproductive biology, the availability of fishery statistics and ecological information has enabled the production of specific regulations aiming to produce a sustainable fishery. Finally, the document highlights the obstacles such as changes in representatives to the local forum and the social and economic pressure exerted by the fishers and their families, which prompted Government decisions to the detriment of the species.

Keywords: Participatory management, consensus, scientific parameters, obstacles, sea cucumber


With the arrival of the sea cucumber fishery to the Galapagos Islands in 1991, after commercial depletion in mainland Ecuador (Camhi, 1995), fishing activity as a whole changed direction. Originally, this fishing activity was concentrated in the in the Bolívar Channel (Figure 1), focusing entirely on Isostichopus fuscus as the commercially important species (Figure 2). When the fishery was reopened in 1999 after the official closing in 1994, the fishing grounds were extended to Floreana, Española, Fernandina, Isabela, San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz with potential expansion to the rest of the archipelago.

Isostichopus fuscus is collected from the bottom of the sea floor by divers on a hookah, at depths ranging from 1 to 30 m. A total of 845 fishers and 313 fishing vessels were active in the 2003 season (Murillo et al., 2003), numbers that have remained fairly constant since the approval of the Fishing Registry in 2002. However, De Miras et al. (1996) reported only approximately 400 fishers during the first legal fishing season in 1994. Despite being an activity intended only for locals, the sea cucumber fishery has enticed fishermen from mainland Ecuador to fish illegally (Powell and Gibbs, 1996) and there is a constant introduction of new fishers.

Isostichopus fuscus can be found in the eastern Pacific, from Baja California, México to Ecuador, including Cocos Island (Costa Rica), Socorro Island (México) and the Galapagos Islands (Ecuador) (Deichman, 1958; Maluf, 1991). In the latter it can be found in all islands where there are rocky bottoms down to 39 m depth (Maluf, 1991). Fishing activity for this species has been recorded in Mexico (Castro, 1995; Reyes-Bonilla and Herrero-Perezrul, 2003), however, it was declared at risk of extinction (Secreteria de Medio Ambiente, Recursos Naturales y Pesca, 2000). In mainland Ecuador the populations are overexploited and the only viable populations are found in the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR) (For a complete list of acronyms see Table 1).

Figure 1. Geographical distribution of Isostichopus fuscus in the Galapagos Islands. Shaded area show known distribution.

The participatory approach

In 1998 the Ecuadorian Government passed the Special Law for Galapagos (SLG) aiming for a better management and conservation of the Galapagos Islands. The SLG created the GMR, comprising an area over 138 000 km2, which included changes in the National Parks legislation, thus incorporating the first (and so far only) Ecuadorian marine reserve. The SLG grants exclusive use of the GMR to registered artisanal fishers of the Galapagos Islands, creates the coastal zoning scheme (later approved in 2000), in which approximately 18 % of the coastal zone was declared as a No-Take Zone (NTZ) (Heylings et al., 2002), and sets the participatory process within the management framework for the sustainable use of the GMR. Additionally, it places the management and control of the GMR in the hands of the Galapagos National Park Service (GNPS).

The management of the GMR is based on a two-level system, involving both local and national stakeholders. On the local level, the Participatory Management Board (PMB) or “Junta” includes five direct stakeholders: Artisanal Fishers Cooperatives Association, Galapagos Chamber of Tourism, Naturalist Guides, Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) and the Galapagos National Park Service (Figure 3). At this level, all decisions involving any activity within the GMR must be taken by consensus. Decisions are taken with regard to any activities that may influence the GMR as a whole, not just the direct ones of the stakeholders. The CDRS, the operative arm of the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), provides the scientific information used for informed decisions. Scientific data, such as population density, size classes and depth distribution, are collected on trips to the six islands under legal exploitation and include the active participation of the direct stakeholders of the GMR. This information is analysed and presented to the participatory forum with the direct input of all stakeholders (Toral-Granda and Martínez, 2004).

Figure 2. Isostichopus fuscus in the Galapagos islands. Photo: Manfred Altamirano.

Table 1. List of acronyms used throughout the document.






Charles Darwin Foundation


Inter-Institutional Management Authority


Charles Darwin Research Station


Merchant Monitoring Certificates


Fisheries Monitoring Certificate


No-Take Zone


Fisheries Monitoring Programme


Participatory Management Board


Galapagos Marine Reserve


Special Law of Galapagos


Galapagos National Park Service


Total Allowable Catch


Geographic Positioning System


Transport Authorization Docket

Figure 3. Schematic presentation of the participatory management scheme for the Galapagos Marine Reserve, as approved by the Galapagos Special Law passed on 1998. (Adapted from: Heylings and Bravo, 2001; Bravo et al., in press).

All decisions taken by the PMB are presented to the Inter-Institutional Management Authority (IMA) which comprises government authorities (Ministry of Fishing, Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Defence) along with Galapagos-based stakeholders (Artisanal Fishers Cooperatives Association, Galapagos Chamber of Tourism) and finally the Ecuadorian Committee for the Defence of the Environment. The CDF acts as a scientific assessor to the IMA as per agreement with the Ecuadorian Government. The GNPS serves as technical secretary during all IMA meetings. All decisions brought by the PMB are generally evaluated by the IMA that in turn makes a final resolution based on a voting system. Both the GNPS and the CDF provide guidance, opinions and criteria but cannot vote. When a resolution or a decision is taken it is the GNPS responsibility to enforce it. Most of the decisions taken by the PMB are approved by the IMA, helping to strengthen the process and to encourage the local stakeholders to continue with co-management (Heylings and Bravo, 2001).

This system has allowed the stakeholders to define and propose their own political views and management regulations, while at the same time safeguarding against the imposition of decisions made outside of the Islands and in a vertical manner (top-down decisions).

In the past six years (1998-2003) the administration system of the GMR has shown a remarkable efficiency in the management framework of the GMR. Additional to the co-management scheme, it has created tools that have maximised fishing activities within the GMR while helping sustainable development. All these tools were created in the participatory fora (PMB and IMA). These tools are:

Table 2. Main scientific criteria used for the management of the Galapagos sea cucumber (Isostichopus fuscus) fishery in the five-year fishing calendar (2002-2006).

Season: According to the results from the population density participatory studies it will be decided whether a fishery will be opened each year. If a fishery were to happen, it should take place between March and May each year for 60 days.

Population density participatory studies: Every year, prior and after each fishing season, a participatory study on population density will be undertaken. All direct users of the GMR must take part in the study.

Criteria needed for a fishing season: In 2002, a minimum population density of 0.4 ind./ m-2 of individuals greater than 22 cm total length should be found in all fishing zones in order to open a fishing season. As from 2003, additional to the population density values, a comprehensive analysis of Catch per Unit of Effort (CPUE) will be carried out to indicate the trends for all the fishing zones. If CPUE values are lower every year, the fishing zone under analysis will be closed for fishing activities. If 3/4 of the total of the fishing zones show diminishing values, the fishery will be closed in the entire archipelago.

Minimum Landing Size: 20 cm total length (fresh product).

Closure of nursery grounds: Bolívar Channel will be closed to fishing activities due to high levels of recruits.

The use of scientific information in the adaptive and participatory approach to management of the GMR

Until 1998, the only management strategy for the sustainable use of I. fuscus in the GMR was the complete ban on fishing activities; however, this was not completely enforced and illegal fishing activities were registered (Piu, 1998, 2000). In 1999 and 2000, several measures were established for the fishery: (i) fishing season; (ii) Total Allowable Catch (TAC); (iii) population density studies; and (iv) continuous monitoring of all fishing activities (Table 3).

During 2001, the fishing season also had a minimum landing size, TAC per registered fisher (the TAC was equally divided among all registered fishers), No-Take Zones, and the closure of nursery grounds after the juveniles were found in Bolívar Channel (Toral-Granda and Martínez, 2004) (Table 3). The individual TAC was present only during this year due to major complaints by the fishing sector; however, it was beneficial for both the management and conservation. In that year only 2.7 million sea cucumbers were caught (Murillo et al., 2003).

From 2002, with the approval of the five-year fishing calendar, a set of both biological and fishing indicators were established as key elements for overseeing this activity in the GMR. A minimum threshold value was accepted, and although based on precautionary principles, the idea has been widely accepted by all stakeholders. Moreover, permanent monitoring of the CPUE[37] in all fishing zones will help to close a fishing zone if the value drops substantially.

In the 2003 season, nine criteria were used to manage the fishing activities for I. fuscus in the GMR in comparison to only four used in 1999 (Table 3). From all these criteria, the TAC has been the hardest to keep as a management tool, despite its widespread use. Galápagos artisanal fishers blame diving accidents (some fatal) and inequity of earnings on the TAC. Total income from the fishery relies on the quality of the fishing vessels used, proximity to fishing location and time underwater. The TAC promotes higher competition amongst fishers, yielding longer diving times in order to catch as much as possible before other fishers arrive or the TAC is achieved. This management tool has not had the consensus at the PMB level, which has led to further discussions at the National level (IMA). Socio-economic and political pressure along with hastiness at the meeting led to the absence of a TAC and resulted in a catch of 8.3 million individuals in 2002, which is likely to be unsustainable.

Table 3. Technical criteria used for the management of the sea cucumber (Isostichopus fuscus) fishery in the Galapagos Marine Reserve since 1999.

Fishing Season

Technical Criteria






Two-Month season






Total Allowable Catch (TAC)






Individual TAC






Fisheries Monitoring






Minimum Landing Size






Coastal Zoning






Closure of nursery grounds






Closure of islands






Population density evaluation






Catch Per Unit of Effort (CPUE)






Total number of criteria used






All these regulations would not have been placed and used without the constant support of scientific information. The CDRS is in charge of providing this information to the PMB and the IMA and to any other interested parties upon request. Figure 4 illustrates the use of science towards the management of I. fuscus fishery in the GMR. The CDRS has focused its work on:

Figure 4. Schematic presentation of the influence of scientific information for the better management of I. fuscus in the Galapagos Islands. The box in dotted lines is work in progress.

Monitoring of fishing activity as a tool for scientific information and management

The FMP was established in 1997 to collect information on fishing sites, fishing effort, total catch, fishing methods, etc. This is intended to provide basic information for the proper understanding of the extractive activities within the GMR. This information is gathered for all species extracted from the GMR. The fishery database for I. fuscus and spiny lobsters (Panulirus penicillatus and P. gracilis) is the best available in the CDRS as they are the first and second most important products harvested from the Galapagos (Murillo et al., 2003).

During each fishing season, GNPS vessels with at least one Ecuadorian Navy Officer patrol current fishing grounds. During the patrolling they will verify the fishing permits and check for illegal catch.

The FMP tries to collect information from the start of the extraction process through the use of fishing observers, landing monitors, park wardens and marine resource officers. The whole process is known as “Cadena de custodia” or Chain of Custody. This chain aims to follow the product from the extraction point to the exporter in mainland Ecuador. With the SLG, it is mandatory for the artisanal fishing sector of Galapagos to comply with FMP requests and activities. The Chain of Custody has the following steps:

1. A CDRS fishing observer travels on board a fishing vessel and collects information on fishing sites (GPS position), fishing method used, total catch per site, size structure of the landed product, biological information, etc.

2. For fishing vessels without a fishing observer, information is recorded in the captain’s logbook.

3. Upon arrival to one of the ports: (i) CDRS personnel will record catch information, fishing sites, biological information, and (ii) GNPS will verify compliance to fishery regulations, any catch not complying to these is impounded. Vessels with a fishing observer on board must only comply with the GNPS provision. A Fishing Monitoring Certificate (FMC) is issued to the owner of the catch. This certificate verifies the amount harvested and state of the produce (i.e. fresh, in brine, dry for I. fuscus)

4. The owner of the catch must present the FMCs to the sea cucumber merchant, who will present all FMCs to GNPS personnel upon inspection. The total amount presented by the dealer must be equal to the sum of FMCs. The merchant is then issued a Merchant Monitoring Certificate (MMC).

5. Once the sea cucumber merchant has gathered enough product to send to mainland Ecuador, he/she will present all MMCs to the GNPS in order to obtain authorization to send the product out of the Islands. The GNPS will issue a Transport Authorization Docket (TAD) and a CITES official export permit. Isostichopus fuscus was included in Appendix III of CITES on August 15, 2003.

6. The sea cucumber merchant must present all TADs and CITES official export permits in the airport or cargo pier in the Galapagos Islands. Upon arrival in mainland Ecuador, all cargo will be presented to the Undersecretary of Fishing, in mainland Ecuador, who in turn will verify the amount intended to be exported from the amount stated in the certificates and permits. Then the cargo can be exported internationally.

Commercial value of I. fuscus

Weaknesses of the participatory management system

Despite the great effort by all users, managers and scientists to preserve I. fuscus population at sustainable levels, this fishing activity is under threat of collapse due to a number of factors:

1. Illegal fishing activities are still present within the GMR. According to GNPS data, over 500 000 sea cucumbers have been illegally impounded between 1996 and 2003, the quantity that was not detected is unknown.

2. The minimum landing size is not respected. In 2003, 37 % of the total catch was undersized (Murillo et al., 2003), compared to less than 10 % in 1999 (Murillo et al., 2002).

3. Stocks on four of the six islands under fishing pressure show clear evidence of overfishing. Both CPUE values (Murillo et al., 2003) and stock assessments (Toral-Granda and Martínez, 2004; Toral-Granda et al., 2003) clearly show a rapid decrease of I. fuscus populations over time and there is no evidence of significant recruitment (Toral-Granda and Martínez, 2004; Toral-Granda et al., 2003).

4. The average size at landing has decreased with time, suggesting that despite a relatively high total catch being maintained, total biomass has reduced (Murillo et al., 2003).

5. The provisional zoning scheme has yet to prove its benefits to I. fuscus populations within the GMR. Stock abundance is highly variable over time (Toral-Granda and Martínez, 2004; Toral-Granda et al., 2003); however, the zoning has been effective during some fishing seasons (Toral-Granda et al., 2003) probably due to better patrolling by the GNPS. According to Altamirano and Aguiñaga (2002), NTZs have the highest percentage of all illegal fishing activity.

Moreover, the participatory management in the GMR has not achieved the aims and expectations envisioned. All users complain at some time about the system, but there is still the wide opinion that the process is just starting and more changes will be observed in time. Nonetheless, it is worth pointing out some deficiencies to help other possible users to overcome such problems.


All fishing activities within the GMR have a well established co-management scheme, which includes all major stakeholders in the decision-making process. The process itself promotes bottom-up decisions based on scientific information. For the management of I. fuscus, there is enough scientific information to guide the process towards sustainability, and both the local and national forum understand the present situation of this species within the GMR. Despite all efforts to manage this species within sustainable levels, the fishery is under serious peril due to overexploitation and illegal fishing. The co-management scheme is still young and undergoing changes and revisions that will yield beneficial impacts in the management and future of the GMR and for I. fuscus.


The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Packard Foundation, the Interamerican Development Bank (1274 OC/EC), WWF, the AVINA Foundation and the Galapagos National Park Service provided funds for the different components of the research used for this paper. Tom Poulsom, Graciela Monsalve and Jason Heilmann helped with the translation of the original document to English. Many thanks to Steve Purcell, Sven Uthicke, John Simcox and Tom Poulsom who provided useful corrections and comments.


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[37] CPUE= catch per unit of effort - Individuals/diver/day

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