Artisanal longline fishing the Galapagos Islands –effects on vulnerable megafauna in a UNESCO World Heritage site
Marine megafauna (elasmobranchs, marine mammals, turtles, and seabirds) are important ecologically and economically because many species often occupy upper trophic levels as adults and are essential for marine-based tourism in many areas of the world. This group of species is also heavily impacted by fishing because most have late sexual maturity, longevity, and low reproductive output, which affects their ability to recover from depletion. In Galapagos, marine megafauna species are protected from fishing throughout the marine reserve and are the main attraction for marine-based tourism, helping generate millions of dollars in revenue annually. Despite their importance in the archipelago, these species are being caught as bycatch in the multiple artisanal longlining projects that have been carried out since the implementation of the reserve in 1998. Longlining was originally proposed as a way of redirecting fishing effort from the severely depleted coastal-demersal species to pelagic fish such as yellowfin tuna and swordfish. Although all these projects have resulted in high bycatch of megafauna, longline fishing projects have continued without independent scientific studies to evaluate their impact, largely due to poor objective definition, data collection, and enforcement. To fill in this knowledge gap, we analyzed data of the fifth experimental longline fishing project undertaken in 2012–2013 to describe the fishery, identify variables affecting the composition and quantity of bycatch, and suggest mitigation strategies. This experimental project had twelve vessels, which deployed 42,007 hooks catching 4893 individuals of 33 species, mostly yellowfin tuna and swordfish. Of those, 16 species were protected megafauna, particularly blacktip sharks (Carcharhinus limbatus) and oceanic manta (Mobula birostris). These species were regularly captured during the two seasons and in the three bioregions that occur in the archipelago, suggesting little potential to mitigate their catch. As an alternative, we identified 14 hotspots where yellowfin tuna and swordfish could be harvested in large numbers sustainably through more selective fishing techniques such as pole fishing, a method that is also more economical for artisanal fishers. In an archipelago where the main economic activity is marine wildlife tourism, the implementation of an extractive and unselective activity such as pelagic longing fishing should be avoided to ensure the sustainability of the Galapagos marine ecosystem and its booming tourism industry.