Managers of two world-renowned marine protected areas have enlisted the enforcement assistance of an NGO that has made a name for itself in direct-action efforts against illegal whalers and driftnetters.

In recent months, the Galapagos Marine Reserve (Ecuador) and the Cocos Island National Park (Costa Rica) have each teamed up with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society for help in patrolling their waters against illegal fishers. Sea Shepherd, a US-based NGO with operations around the world, is perhaps best known for its ramming and sinking of various whaling vessels in the past two decades.

In the Galapagos and Cocos Island, Sea Shepherd is providing a patrol vessel and crew to transport arresting officials in pursuit of illegal fishers. Sea Shepherd is providing its service free of charge to the MPAs; the NGO funds its efforts through public donations.

Cocos Island is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Galapagos Marine Reserve is slated to receive the same designation in December 2001.

Assisting the Galapagos

Sea Shepherd describes itself as involved with the enforcement of international laws, regulations, and treaties “when there is no enforcement by national governments or international regulatory organizations due to absence of jurisdiction or lack of political will.” Paul Watson, who founded it in 1977, said the organization has long recognized the growing problem of illegal fishing in Galapagos waters — particularly by the mainland Ecuadorian longline fleet — and has wanted to help. Industrial fishing within the 140,000 sq. km marine reserve is banned by Ecuadorian law.

Initial contact between the park management and Sea Shepherd occurred in 1997. “We offered the national park and the Ecuadorian government the use of our best patrol boat: the 95-foot (29-meter) Sirenian, a former US Coast Guard cutter,” said Watson. Negotiations accelerated late last year, coinciding with Sea Shepherd’s assistance to the park on other matters (see box at end of article). In March 2001, the NGO and the park agreed to a five-year pact to patrol the park’s waters together.

Under the agreement, the NGO provides its Canadian-registered Sirenian and a small crew, and transports two park rangers and an Ecuadorian naval officer in pursuit of offending vessels. Only the naval officer has the power to arrest. The mission marks the first time a foreign-registered vessel has been allowed to patrol the islands as part of an enforcement effort.

So far, this joint effort aboard the Sirenian has seized seven commercial fishing vessels, primarily from the Ecuadorian mainland or Costa Rica. Since Sea Shepherd started patrolling, the Ecuadorian navy has also stepped up patrols of Galapagos waters with its own craft — including a helicopter — and has seized three poachers.

Management pleased

Park management is pleased with the arrangement. The official Galapagos National Park newsletter has advertised the park’s pact with Sea Shepherd in articles following each arrest, and remarked on Sea Shepherd’s hope to “cultivate respect for nature in future generations of galapaguenos”. The newsletter has also warned locals not to forget that their “home, shelter, [and] source of life and income” depend on protection of the resources that Sea Shepherd and the park are working to safeguard.

The Sirenian patrols have arrested no local galapagueno fishers to this point. Although “artisanal fishing” by locals is allowed in much of the reserve, a network of no-take areas has been established (MPA 1:7), and is off-limits to everyone. Sean O’Hearn Gimenez, Sea Shepherd’s marine liaison to the Galapagos, anticipates that eventually the NGO will pursue local offenders as part of its involvement in all enforcement-related issues in the reserve.

O’Hearn Gimenez says that for compliance by all fishers to increase significantly, the punishment for illegal fishing will need to be increased, too. The maximum fine for illegal fishing in the Galapagos is US $4,000, which is relatively minimal compared to the money to be made from some fisheries — particularly the shark-fin trade, which has been growing in the islands. The fins reportedly sell for US $30/pound on the Asian market.

What could have the biggest effect on illegal fishing, however, is whether the park is allowed to confiscate offending vessels. At press time, the highest court in Ecuador was considering an appeal by the owners of one longline vessel caught by theSirenian; the park has pursued confiscation of the longliner, found with more than 1000 shark fins on board. Three lower courts have supported the park’s attempt to confiscate. If the high court agrees, it would mark the first time the park has confiscated a vessel for illegal fishing.

Sea Shepherd anticipates creating opportunities for volunteers to help in patrolling. “We’re looking at bringing Ecuadorian university students to participate in protecting their own marine reserve,” said O’Hearn Gimenez. “Thanks to our contract with the national park, we are able to offer this and other environmental education opportunities.” When Sea Shepherd’s five-year agreement with the park comes up in 2006, he’d like to see it renewed.

Assisting Cocos Island

The nature of Sea Shepherd’s association with Cocos Island, in Costa Rica, is somewhat different from the Galapagos case. Rather than maintain a regular presence in this reserve, the Sea Shepherd flagship Ocean Warrior has visited Cocos Island while on supply runs from the US to the Galapagos-stationed Sirenian. On a visit in August, the Ocean Warrior seized a large Ecuadorian vessel and seven support boats. Later, in September, the ship captured a longliner. (Fishing within 12 miles of Cocos Island is prohibited under Costa Rican law.)

William Munoz Quiros, director of the Friends of Cocos Island Foundation, says park management accepted Sea Shepherd’s offer of help because the park’s current patrol boats are ineffective against poachers. “The rangers do not have a vessel that inspires respect and authority,” said Quiros, whose organization generates technical and financial resources to the park. Sea Shepherd, he said, has experience in intimidating wrongdoers. Incidentally, Sea Shepherd vessels are painted all-black and fly the “pirate” flag of a skull and crossed bones.

When Sea Shepherd visits Cocos Island, the Ocean Warrior carries park rangers aboard to make the arrests. The rangers work for the Costa Rican environment ministry, which oversees the park.

Sea Shepherd’s Watson says the NGO’s long-term goal in Cocos Island is to help the managers to help themselves. The organization is raising funds to set up a radar installation in the park to monitor all vessels, and to purchase additional computer and policing equipment for the ranger staff, including two high-speed Zodiac boats. Until the park has this new equipment, Watson says he anticipates Sea Shepherd will continue to visit Cocos Island a few times each year.

Quiros says that Sea Shepherd is providing invaluable training to the rangers. “We need the experience and knowledge that Sea Shepherd has obtained in its 25 years of service for marine conservation,” he said. Just as important for the long term, he said, is something that is out of Sea Shepherd’s hands: stronger national legislation to punish illegal fishers with jail time and seizure of vessels. The national congress is expected to consider such a law in the coming year.

For more information

Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, 22774 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, CA 90265, USA. Tel: +1 310 456 1141; E-mail:; Web:

Sean O’Hearn Gimenez, Sea Shepherd Ecuador, Galapagos National Park, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. E-mail:

Alexandra Bahamonde (communications officer), Galapagos National Park, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. E-mail:

William Munoz Quiros, Friends of Cocos Island Foundation, P.O. Box 276-1005 Barrio Mexico, Costa Rica. Tel: +506 256 7476; E-mail:; Web:

Box: Paving way for partnership

Prior to its enforcement pact with the Galapagos National Park, Sea Shepherd provided other assistance to the park’s management in response to two major events in late 2000/early 2001: riots by local fishers over allowed lobster-fishing quotas (MPA News 2:6) and an ensuing oil spill (MPA 2:7). Following the riots, Sea Shepherd delivered donated computers, cameras, and other equipment to replace units lost by management during the violence. The organization then helped rescue oiled birds and iguanas during the spill response.

Box: Other NGOs assist with enforcement

Sea Shepherd is relatively unique among international NGOs for its direct action in MPA site enforcement. While other NGOs may stop short of that approach, some are providing other enforcement-related assistance to MPA managers around the world, namely through capacity-building and community education.

WWF, as just one example, is providing a broad array of training and informational services to resource managers and stakeholders in the Philippines and Indonesia. In some cases the organization has provided MPAs with patrol boats and radios. But its main focus has been on educating communities on the importance of resource protection, and training local staffers to patrol. In the Philippines, the NGO has also trained fishers in enforcement of local MPA and fisheries regulations, so that they may be deputized as patrol officers.

For more information

Jenny Springer, WWF US, Washington, DC, USA. Tel: +1 202 778 9724; E-mail: