A Galapagos sea lion chases a large school of Salema fish off Isabela Island. Photo by Enric Sala/National Geographic. Photo from National Geographic Pristine Seas (pristineseas.org).

This story has been updated.

More than 180 years after Charles Darwin first set foot on the Galápagos islands, where his observations would help fuel many of his revolutionary ideas about biology and evolution, new protections will be enforced around the island that bears his name. On Monday, the government of Ecuador announced the creation of a new marine sanctuary around the Galápagos islands of Darwin and Wolf, which scientists say will support a unique and economically valuable ecosystem that, until now, has not received adequate protection from threats like overfishing.

The waters surrounding the Galápagos islands have already been protected since 1998 by the Galápagos Marine Reserve, which spans more than 50,000 square miles around the archipelago and is listed as a World Heritage Site. However, while industrial fishing was banned inside the reserve, smaller-scale artisanal fishing was still permitted throughout most of the area. The new sanctuary will designate several areas within the marine reserve as “no-take” zones, meaning no fishing will be permitted at all.

The largest section of the new sanctuary will include nearly 15,000 square miles of ocean surrounding Darwin and Wolf, the two northernmost islands in the archipelago, as well as several other smaller areas around the rest of the Galápagos islands. In these places, scientific expeditions and tourism will be permitted — but no “taking” of natural resources, including fishing. Overall, about a third of the entire Galápagos Marine Reserve will now be designated as a no-take zone.

This is an important move because of the area’s immense ecological importance and its value for tourism, said Pelayo Salinas de León, a senior marine scientist with the Charles Darwin Foundation. The area around Darwin and Wolf constitutes “probably one of the most spectacular and significant marine ecosystems that we have on the planet,” he told The Washington Post.

Salinas was the lead author on a study conducted in the region in 2013 and 2014, which used divers and cameras to document the amounts and types of fish found on the coral reef around Darwin and Wolf. That expedition found that the area has the largest biomass of reef fish ever recorded, and it consists mostly of sharks. This is unique in and of itself, as shark populations have been depleted throughout much of the world by fishing and other human activities.

“I would like to emphasize the ecological significance of this area,” Salinas said. “[These are] some of the few places that we have in the world’s oceans where sharks are very abundant. We‘re kind of looking at a window of how the oceans once were.”


A group of hammerhead sharks swims over the sandy seafloor populated with garden eels at Darwin Island. These sharks are known for their ability to make sudden and sharp turns as the unique wide-set placement of their eyes allows them a vertical 360-degree view, which is ideal for stalking their prey. Image credit: Enric Sala/National Geographic. From National Geographic Pristine Seas (pristineseas.org).

Unfortunately, even around Darwin and Wolf, scientists believe the abundant shark populations have been threatened by illegal fishing. Sharks are a protected species within the existing Galápagos Marine Reserve, but poaching has been a problem, according to Salinas.

“The shark populations are still the most abundant on the planet, but the scientific studies show that the abundance of sharks has been declining over time,” said Enric Sala, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence who was also a co-author on the study and was present for the announcement of the new sanctuary on Monday. He added that other species of fish targeted by recreational and artisanal fisheries until now have also been declining.

“So these new rules protect a third of the most unique waters on the plant, and will allow for this abundance of marine life to restore itself,” he said. In addition to the no-take designation, the new marine sanctuary will involve increased surveillance to protect against illegal fishing.

Protecting the fish — particularly the sharks — is not just important for the ecosystem, but for the economy as well, according to both Sala and Salinas. A 2015 report to the Galápagos National Park, which Sala co-authored, found that sharks have an immense value to tourism that far outweighs their value to the fishing industry. The report found that a dead shark in the Galápagos is worth about $200 to fishers, while its tourism value over the course of its lifetime is more than $5 million. Tourists come from all over the world to visit the islands and dive for a chance to see the sharks and other fish.

All of these findings were instrumental in the decision to establish the new sanctuary, according to Sala. In addition to the study led by Salinas, Sala returned to the Galápagos last December on a National Geographic Pristine Seas expedition to further survey the marine environment around the islands. He said Ecuador’s ministers of tourism and the environment were able to join in this expedition and “experience the shark abundance firsthand.”

Then, this past February, Sala met with Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa to discuss the region’s importance and the future of its conservation. During this time, talks about revamping the marine reserve were already in motion — the Galápagos National Park Directorate had opened discussions about rezoning within the marine reserve back in 2015. These conversations culminated in the new marine sanctuary’s increased protections, and Sala appeared with President Correa during Monday’s announcement.

The announcement comes at at a time when concern over marine protected areas is at a high point, and several major new designations have been made in the past year preceding the Galápagos announcement.

Back in October, for instance, President Obama announced the creation of the first new marine sanctuaries in U.S. waters in 15 years, while in 2014 he also expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, which is similar in scope to a marine sanctuary and was first established in 2009. At the same time President Obama announced the new sanctuaries last year, the government of Chile also announced the creation of the Nazca-Desventuradas marine park, which covers more than 100,000 miles around the San Ambrosio and San Felix islands, and also committed to the creation of a 230,000 square mile protected area around Easter Island.

Also in October, the government of Palau announced the creation of a nearly 200,000-square-mile marine sanctuary. And just a month prior, in September, New Zealand announced a slightly larger sanctuary in the South Pacific.

Additionally, the UN will convene later this month to begin negotiations on a new treaty to protect biodiversity in the high seas, the parts of the ocean that are not subject to jurisdiction by any single country. Discussions will include the need for environmental impact assessments and area-based management on the high seas, including the potential for marine protected areas, according to Elizabeth Wilson, director of the international ocean policy program for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The global preoccupation with marine protected areas stems largely from a growing understanding of the profound impact humans are having on the oceans. Overfishing, pollution and the increasing threat of climate change are some of the biggest threats facing the world’s marine ecosystems.

Approximately 3 percent of the world’s oceans are included in marine protected areas, although the types of protections these areas are subject to can vary from place to place. The United Nations has set a goal of protecting at least 10 percent of the world’s marine and coastal areas by 2020 — but some scientists say even that amount will likely not be enough.

A new paper, also published Monday, reviewed nearly 150 studies examining the question of how to protect the world’s oceans and concluded that limiting protections to 10 percent of the seas will probably be inadequate. To meet goals such as protecting biodiversity, maintaining marine ecosystem services and safeguarding certain socioeconomic principles, such as maximizing fisheries yields, the study’s authors recommend a long-term goal of protecting more than 30 percent of the world’s oceans.

“2020 is just a way-point on the road to effective ocean protection, not the endpoint,” said the study’s co-author Callum Roberts, a professor of marine conservation at the University of York in the United Kingdom. “We are likely to see higher percentage targets in the future once we pass this 10 percent, and I’m hoping that a goal of 30 percent by 2030 will really gain political support after 2020.”

Of course, percentage points aren’t everything — the effectiveness of new marine protected areas will also depend heavily on the degree to which the waters are protected, Roberts added. Enacting stricter regulations, such as establishing no-take zones, can produce higher benefits than simply limiting certain invasive human activities, like oil and gas drilling, he pointed out.

So in that light, the Galápagos announcement — with its more stringent protections — is a step forward both for the region, itself, and for global goals on the overall preservation of the world’s oceans.

“We are losing more and more of these few places where the oceans are thriving, and this is a very important step,” Salinas said.