Over nearly two decades, WildAid worked with the Galapagos National Park Service to build a comprehensive marine protection system, slowly garnering community support, developing a robust sensor suite, building their patrol vessel fleet, and creating training systems. While illegal activity still occurs within its borders, the results have been impressive. In 2009 at least 12,000 sharks were being poached annually from the Park’s waters, today it has the highest concentration of sharks in the world. Since 2011, WildAid has developed a model for regional collaboration using peer-to-peer exchanges to connect the people in the field with their peers in other locations so together they can share best practices and learn through mutual experience.

By bringing together the right people, in the right place, at the right time, using the right systems, our peer-to-peer exchanges have led to increased collaboration between MPA managers and the creation of support networks for our sites. For example, in 2018, we hosted a peer exchange between rangers in Galapagos National Park and Santa Elena Marine Reserve in Ecuador’s coast. The rangers of Santa Elena had previously lacked the confidence to intercept commercial fishing vessels that were illegally fishing in their waters. With the help of the Galapagos rangers, they learned how to do so safely and effectively, and managed to intercept their first vessel independently that same week.

Bringing together the right people means that we identify the best participants to achieve the exchange’s primary goal. For example, in Mexico, we hoped to foster political will to establish a Marine Protection System in the Midriff Islands and enact joint patrols between the Mexican Navy and the park rangers. Thus, we led peer exchanges in 2015 and 2016 with high-level officials from Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment, Navy, and park directors, to meet with their peers in Mexico to present their successes using this approach to enforcement. As a result, Mexican officials were not only impressed with the system but approved investments in surveillance for the Midriff Islands. Likewise, the Santa Elena exchange focused on improving operations, which meant that instead of high-level government officials, we brought together the rangers conducting daily patrols so they could learn from their peers.

The right place means that we host our exchanges at the sites that can exemplify a complete Marine Protection System or a particularly solid approach to an issue, and the visiting countries are often those where we hope to gain political will for protection or sites that have specific challenges that can be solved by shared learning. For example, when we conduct exchanges with Galapagos rangers, it often helps to host the exchange within the Galapagos National Park to demonstrate what an effective patrol looks like in their waters, provide tours of their control center, and show their everyday work in fisheries monitoring at the dock. Likewise, in Mexico, the exchange took place in Baja California to show the Mexican officials the beauty of their protected areas, the daily work their rangers conducted, and demonstrate its conservation-importance.

The right time means that we provide plenty of time for unstructured conversation and interactions during our peer exchanges. For example, in July 2018, we hosted a regional workshop in the Galapagos with 7 countries and participants representing 30+ MPAs. While we had an agenda for presentations, field demonstrations, outings to the site’s control center or other specific locales, and breakout sessions, we also made sure to provide opportunities for our participants to interact with each other (such as during field trips) so that they could form those bonds and trust that is so important in a connection. As a result, and nearly 8 months later, our participants are still active in a WhatsApp WildAid created event participants, and continually seek ways to collaborate.

Lastly, the right systems mean that we provide our participants with avenues for connection after the event, such as sharing contact information between participants, setting up WhatsApp groups, and even providing follow-up events to continue the discussion. This was helpful when our Galapagos control center spotted an illegal fishing vessel on the coast of Ecuador using their vessel monitoring system and alerted Machalilla marine reserve about the vessel. The timely notice allowed the Rangers to head out and intercept the vessel. Likewise, the Ecuadorian Navy sends regular reports to the Galapagos National Park rangers about their findings using electronic monitoring, due to their long-standing relationships formed by joint trainings and communication.

Overall, we believe in the power of regional collaboration to amplify and catalyze effective marine conservation worldwide. Being a ranger can be a lonely endeavor, and by creating these support networks, we help rangers find peers doing similar work, facing similar issues, and celebrating similar successes.

That is why we will be using an approach we call Regional Leadership Hubs to continue scaling WildAid’s marine program. This approach incorporates what we’ve learned from peer exchanges, and allows MPA practitioners to learn from their peers in the region that share similar threats, approaches, and cultural nuances. Our hubs will have a set curriculum to enable our partners to better establish a complete Marine Protection System.

We look forward to sharing additional lessons learned with you as we develop our Regional Leadership Hubs.