Reducing plastic waste in the Galapagos

Our oceans currently receive 5-13 million metric tons of plastic waste each year. The results of this can be seen in the oceanic garbage patches— vortexes of plastic debris; overwhelming pollution in coastal areas, and marine wildlife deaths due to ingestion of plastic pieces. Galapagos National Park, home to more than 3,000 marine species and a living laboratory for scientists around the world is no exception.

WildAid is working with the Galapagos National Park Rangers to reduce plastic consumption on the islands, starting with local elementary schools. Rangers have collected data on current plastic consumption at Galapagos elementary schools and will track use throughout the year to measure the campaign’s effectiveness. Using a combination of games and infographics, our team will explain why plastic pollution is a problem for our oceans and how it impacts bird, turtle, and marine mammal species, as well as our health and communities. Students will be given a reusable water bottle to incentivize its use over single-use plastic bottles. The pilot school, where this program was incorporated reduced their plastic consumption by 95%. You can help us bring this campaign to three additional Galapagos’ elementary schools to reduce the use of plastic single-use bottles in the Galapagos.

Rescue humpback whales snared by fishing gear in Ecuador

Every summer, humpback whales travel thousands of miles to mate and birth their calves near Isla de la Plata. Due to its productive waters and abundance of commercial fish species, it is also the site of rampant illegal fishing. The numerous illegal gill nets and longlines set by poachers can tangle and drown the whales.

Machalilla’s park rangers developed a humpback whale rescue program four years ago where specially trained rangers, upon finding an entangled whale, jump in the water to cut away the fishing lines. Through a combination of patrols and community outreach, the Machalilla rangers are notified of entanglements and have rescued 14 whales to date. You can help Machalilla’s park rangers rescue more humpback whales this year with increased patrols, the purchase of equipment to help during these daring rescues and community outreach.

Support Vaquita Conservation and Fishermen in Mexico

The world’s smallest porpoise is on the brink of extinction. The vaquita marina (little sea cow) is onlyfound in the Northern Sea of Cortez and fewer than 12 individuals remain (a dramatic decrease from last year). While fishermen do not target the vaquita directly, its numbers are decreasing due to entanglements in gillnets used to trap the totoaba fish.
Although Mexico enacted a gillnet ban in the vaquita’s marine habitat, illegal fishing runs rampant and the lucrative totoaba trade takes precedence to vaquita conservation for fishers in the area. Monitoreo Vaquita is a Mexican organization composed of local fishers that care about vaquita conservation. The group was founded in 2010 to monitor the vaquita population and remove gill nets from the water. Together with international scientists, Monitoreo Vaquita currently has 84 hydrophones in the vaquita habitat to acoustically monitor their population and last year removed 115 nets from the ocean.
With your help, we can continue tracking the vaquita population, provide a small salary for the Monitoreo Vaquita fishermen, and educate the community about the importance of the vaquita.

Sea turtle rehabilitation hospital in Machalilla National Park

Sea turtles in Ecuador face many dangers as they seek to nest along the country’s beaches. Since 2012, the Machalilla marine wildlife hospital has rescued more than 300 sea turtles suffering from various injuries including lesions and internal damage by fishing hooks and entrapment with marine debris, as well as fractures from boat collisions. Other patients include 10 sea lions and more than 300 sea birds over the last five years.
Food and medications are donated by the community or purchased by the Machalilla park rangers out of pocket. We seek to increase the number of sea turtles treated at one time from 25 to 35, improve operations and ensure better diagnosis and treatment of injuries, as well as purchase medications, a digital x-ray machine, surgical equipment and upgrade aging equipment.

Patrolling the seas in Ecuador

Thousands of sea turtle hatchlings make their way to the sea every year from Ecuador’s beaches, but unfortunately less than 1% survive to adulthood facing dangers from illegal fishing equipment, collisions with boats and ghost nets.
Sea turtles are an important part of a healthy marine ecosystem. We will protect sea turtles in the ocean by improving surveillance at sea to prevent fishing practices that often result in sea turtle deaths and injuries, such as long line and gill net fishing. A regular patrol schedule, improved training for park rangers and equipment purchases for safe and effective patrols can all increase the quality and quantity of patrols. During patrols, park rangers gather floating drift nets, and confiscate illegal fishing gear, which together are responsible for myriad sea turtle injuries and deaths as incidental bycatch. These activities encourage responsible fishing practices and compliance with regulations that protect sea turtles.

Sea turtle nest tagging and community outreach

Ecuador’s beaches provide an ideal nesting spot for four sea turtle species (Green Turtles, Leatherbacks, Olive-Ridley and critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtles). Sea turtles are an important part of a healthy marine ecosystem and generate more than one million dollars in tourism for Ecuador annually.
Last year, WildAid worked with park rangers in Pacoche Wildlife Refuge and Marine Reserve to mark sea turtle nests to protect them from predators, deter poachers and educate the community on the benefits of sea turtles to the marine ecosystem and tourism. We released more than 30,000 sea turtle hatchlings to the sea and complemented the patrols with environmental education for over 2,800 local school children. This year, we want to increase the number of sea turtle hatchlings rescued by patrolling and marking nests at two additional nesting sites at Santa Elena and Machalilla National Parks.

A New Patrol Vessel for Machalilla National Park in Ecuador

WildAid donates a patrol boat to Machalilla National Park to expand humpback whale rescues and decrease illegal fishing.

Isla de la Plata in Machalilla National Park has some of the most biodiverse and productive waters on Ecuador’s coast. Known for spectacular wildlife sightings including giant mantas, humpback whales, sharks and sea turtles, it is not uncommon to see tourist vessels taking visitors to the island by day and illegal fishing boats by night. WildAid assisted the park this month in acquiring a new patrol vessel to protect these waters from illegal fishing.

The Rangers at Machalilla risk their lives every day to patrol the waters surrounding Isla de la Plata, removing ghost nets (fishing nets that have been left or lost in the ocean by fishermen) to prevent accidental bycatch and intercepting illegal fishing. Additionally, the Rangers started a humpback whale rescue program to rescue whales entangled in illegal fishing gear, as well as a wildlife rehabilitation hospital to treat injured marine wildlife along the coast.

Last year, WildAid helped the Machalilla Park Rangers increase surveillance of the area by installing a long-range camera and AIS at Isla de la Plata. However, the Park Rangers only had access to one patrol boat to travel from the mainland control center to the island station. Thus, if surveillance equipment spotted illegal fishing activity near Isla de la Plata, a patrol boat could take up to three hours to intercept the fishers, who would be long-gone by then.

In response, WildAid procured a patrol vessel for use specifically at Isla de la Plata to ensure that Rangers stationed there had quick access to better intercept illegal fishers. In addition to its help in enforcement activities, the new vessel will be crucial for the expansion of the humpback whale rescue program. As the majority of humpback whales that visit this region of Ecuador congregate in the waters surrounding Isla de la Plata, the risk of encountering illegal fishing gear there is greater than closer to the mainland. Last year, Machalilla Park Rangers rescued five whales that had been entangled in fishing lines and nets and this year expect to increase rescues due to the new patrol vessel.

This work is part of a three-year project in Ecuador to reduce illegal fishing in six of its coastal marine protected areas. Our work includes a comprehensive marine protection plan for each site, support for regular patrols, surveillance equipment, training for Rangers and fisher/ community outreach.

WildAid has helped decrease illegal fishing on Ecuador’s coast since 2014 thanks to the support of the Sandler Foundation, Conservation International, the Walton Family Foundation, the Overbrook Foundation and the Stellar Blue Fund.

Adapting C3 Tactics for Marine Conservation

WildAid supports Pacoche, Santa Elena and El Morro marine parks in providing reliable communication equipment and systematic training of Rangers in maritime operations.

Communications, command and control (C3) models are used throughout the U.S. armed forces to ensure mission objectives. This assures situational awareness and getting critical information to the right users at the right time. At WildAid, we’ve adapted these principles to the marinescape with the dual goal of protecting precious fisheries and Park Wardens, as exemplified by the following scenario.

A small artisanal boat is moored in a popular local fishing spot in the Santa Elena Wildlife Refuge when two divers emerge with bags full of their catch. Upon inspection, the Santa Elena Rangers find illegally caught sea cucumber mixed with the rest of the catch. Faced with the threat of seizure, the fishers and boat captain become aggressive… Now what?

Most would expect the rangers to radio their control center to report the situation and request backup; However, up until recently, the Rangers did not have a reliable means of communication often relying on personal cell phones with limited reception.

With funding from the Stellar Blue Fund, WildAid supported the marine parks of Pacoche, Santa Elena and El Morro in the procurement of reliable communication equipment and the systematic training of Rangers in maritime operations. As most Rangers are trained in biology rather than enforcement operations, they lack the basic tactical skills and training to avoid the dangers associated with fisheries law enforcement. Compounding issues, many are often ill-equipped to perform their duties.

Since its installation, the communication system combined with specialized Ranger training has been a success in field operations at all three sites. In El Morro, Rangers now report feeling safer during patrols knowing that they can communicate at will with their control center as well as with the Navy. Contraband, fuel and drug trafficking are ubiquitous throughout coastal areas of Ecuador and a simple boarding of an unsuspecting vessel can quickly go wrong. With reliable communications, Rangers are also able to communicate from a distance with suspicious vessels to avoid dangerous encounters with armed fishers or traffickers.

In Pacoche, where patrols are severely limited by fuel costs and its large geographic area, the radios allow rangers more flexibility to conduct targeted patrols and interceptions. Rangers conducting beach patrols communicate with rangers at sea when they spot fishing vessels or other suspicious activity from shore, thus allowing the patrol boat to quickly intercept illegal fishing activities and prevent fuel waste.

Likewise, in Santa Elena, the communication system allows rangers to quickly gather information about the fishers they’ve intercepted by reporting fishing and boat license information to the control center as well as inform their colleagues to prepare for an arrest.

This work is part of a three-year project in Ecuador to reduce illegal fishing in six of its coastal marine protected areas. We are grateful for the support of the Sandler FoundationConservation International, the Walton Family Foundation, the Overbrook Foundation and the Steller Blue Fund in decreasing illegal fishing along Ecuador’s coast since 2014.


A New Canine Unit to Protect the Galapagos from Invasive Species

WildAid and the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency launch a canine unit to prevent the spread of invasive species in the Galapagos islands.

Rex undergoing training.

Invasive species pose one of the greatest threats to the conservation of the Galapagos Islands. That’s why together with the Galapagos Conservancy, WildAid helped the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency (ABG) form a specialized canine unit to protect these unique islands from invasive species.

In 2016, we selected and trained two dogs and three handlers, as well as constructed the necessary infrastructure (kennels and offices) for the unit. The canine unit will provide a versatile and low cost method of detecting illegal substances to prevent their entry into the Galapagos archipelago.

The first stage of the training was done in Quito, where the dogs spent three months training in the identification of nine odors selected by the ABG because they are prohibited from entering the Galapagos, but are commonly found on passengers attempting to smuggle them onto the islands, including oranges, dragon fruit, and passion fruit.

The dogs were tested on their success in detection and their adaptability by identifying the odors in different locations. Unfortunately, one of the canines presented some skin sensitivity issues during this phase and had to be returned to the organization Cobra Canina for a replacement. The new canine is expected to arrive in the next few months.

The canine handlers.

The second phase of the program was done in Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos and consisted in the selection and training of canine handlers. A pool of 11 candidates underwent a rigorous selection process, and of those we selected three canine handlers. The process included basic personality tests, psychomotricity tests (the relation between mental and physical processes) and other aptitude tests to select the best candidates.

After their selection, the three candidates were trained in basic care and maintenance of the canines and their kennels, storage of scent samples, canine handling techniques for detection of target scents including general search strategies in large areas, open areas, closed areas, proper walking techniques and reintroduction of scents.

Over the next few months, we will conduct onsite training at airports and ports for the canine teams and problem correction, as well as conduct initial training for the replacement canine from Cobra Canina for his introduction to the unit. The unit will officially launch in April with three handlers and two canines.

Thanks to the support of IGTOA and the Helmsley Charitable Trust, as well as our partners Galapagos Conservancy and the ABG, this canine unit will act as a strong and unobtrusive tool in the identification of hidden organic products in passenger luggage and cargo upon entry to the archipelago. The prevention of these products, along with our work in biosecurity in the Galapagos, could signify a decrease in the spread of invasive species or diseases that could affect the biodiversity, human health and agricultural development of the Galapagos Islands.

WildAid and Partners Host a Maritime Operations Training in Ecuador

WildAid hosts a maritime operations training for park rangers from 17 Ecuadorian marine protected areas and other marine practitioners to ensure surveillance and interdiction knowledge and safety at sea.

Park rangers in Ecuador risk their lives every day to protect marine areas from illegal fishing and destruction of critical habitat. Together with Conservation International, WWF, the Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment and the Galapagos National Park Service, WildAid hosted a maritime operations training for park rangers from 17 Ecuadorian marine protected areas, ministry of environment officials, fishery officers and other marine practitioners last month to ensure the rangers have the right knowledge to handle any situation that comes their way. Rangers often venture unarmed at night in the face of danger including armed illegal fishers and pirates, to protect Ecuador’s marine environment and endangered species. According to one of the Machalilla park rangers, even a simple task like retrieving a fishing net from the water comes fraught with risk.

Recently, the Machalilla park rangers conducted a night patrol near Isla de la Plata (where all fishing is prohibited) and spotted flashing lights in the water. They realized the lights were coming from an illegal gill net and were used to mark its position since the weighted net cannot be seen from the surface. The rangers waited for someone to retrieve it, but when nobody did, they pulled the 800-yard net onto their boat. While pulling up the net, they spotted four sea turtles entangled in the mesh and quickly released them back to the ocean—saving them from a slow death as incidental bycatch.

Bringing the gill net onboard the Machalilla ranger vessel (Machalilla National Park).

However, their actions did not go unnoticed, and other fishers on the water that night spread the word that rangers had confiscated fishing gear and were unaccompanied by armed Navy officials. The rangers realized they were being followed by angry fishers. They turned off their lights and called the Navy via radio to provide backup, while they found a safe place to land. Luckily the rangers escaped unharmed that night, but this story could have had a much different turnout had the rangers not realized they were being followed.

Unfortunately, stories like this are all too commonplace for the rangers protecting Ecuador’s waters. The use of simple tools like VHF radios and planning for emergency situations possibly saved lives that night. Together with partners, we provide the resources that these rangers need to fulfill their job and increase safety at sea. We also provide training that ensures effective planning, tactics to deal with dangers and to ensure that when they catch an illegal fisher, there are repercussions.

The workshop last month emphasized safety at sea, best practices for patrolling, evidence collection and boarding procedures. It also included hands-on exercises allowing the rangers to brainstorm ways to increase compliance, role-play different scenarios, learn new navigation techniques and ensure that illegal activities are penalized.

Boarding exercises with the rangers.

Enforcement of marine regulations ensures both sustainable fisheries and responsible tourism is being practiced in Ecuador’s coastal marine parks. Systematic training, a key component of our model, is vital for refreshing skills and fostering collaboration between enforcement agencies. It also gives the rangers the opportunity to prepare strategies to deal with risky situations, which are inevitable as they perform their duties.

Thanks to the support of our donors, WildAid has been working in coastal Ecuador since 2014 to strengthen enforcement, prevent illegal fishing and ensure the protection of its pristine marine environments.