Regional Collaboration to Make MPAs Effective

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.

How to Measure Marine Protection Capacity

Effective marine protected areas (MPAs) and sustainable fisheries protect coral reefs, rejuvenate marine wildlife & habitats, provide jobs, and feed millions of people. In the past five years there has been a significant upsurge in their creation, but the reality is that nearly 60% of MPAs lack the necessary resources, training, and enforcement capacity to be successful.

For the last 20 years, WildAid’s marine program has built a comprehensive approach to marine protection. We’ve helped local government and non-profit partners succeed in building successful MPAs by collaborating closely with the right in-country partner organizations to design and implement comprehensive marine protection systems that incorporate both law enforcement and community partnership components. Our process looks at five key components of marine protection, which together comprise a comprehensive Marine Protection System: Surveillance & Enforcement, Community Engagement, Policies & Consequences, Training & Mentorship, and Consistent Funding.

As we continue to scale our marine program to reach new sites, WildAid needs a way to measure progress in establishing a Marine Protection System- one that is objective and consistent across sites. Thus, we developed a Marine Protection Index (MPI) to quantify our findings from the assessment process, establish a baseline measure for marine protection capacity, and better report our progress to our partners and the general public.



We developed an initial version of the MPI in 2012, with 100 questions and various categories. In the first quarter of 2019, we streamlined and modified the pre-existing version to better adhere to our assessment process and the Marine Protection System model. The new version will begin trials this month.

The current MPI has two main sections: Process Indicators and Impact Indicators. The Process Indicators consist of 24 questions that are sub-divided into the five categories of the Marine Protection System. These questions include items such as:

  • Is there a community outreach program?
  • Are there sufficient staff to conduct enforcement operations?
  • Are staff qualified to conduct their work?

Together, these 24 questions help to provide a score for how well the Marine Protection System has been implemented at that site.

The Impact Indicators consist of five questions to address main success factors, such as conservation outcomes (e.g. an increase in fish biomass or populations) and community benefits (e.g. increased community income due to the marine protected area). The higher the score, the better-protected the site.

Like the Project Feasibility Index (PFI), there are scoring guidelines for each question, and we use a five-point scale to grade each indicator. The MPI has been reviewed by the various enforcement experts in our team to ensure clarity, as well as a few in-country partners. This month, we have two assessment trips to Gabon and Tanzania scheduled, where our expert team of consultants will be using the MPI in the field for the first time. We will test for consistency across users, as well as ease of use, and determine scoring brackets for good, fair, and poor marine protection capacity.

The MPI can be a valuable tool in increasing the transparency of our approach, as well as providing our partners with measurable progress indicators as they implement their new enforcement plans.

Like the PFI, and Regional Leadership Hubs, the MPI allow us to better expand our program. We look forward to sharing additional lessons learned with you as we continue scaling WildAid’s marine program.

Discovery Workshops to Identify New Partners

There are over 15,000 marine protected areas (MPAs) worldwide, yet nearly 60% of these are poorly managed and enforced, making them less effective at protecting marine species. WildAid’s marine program builds complete Marine Protection Systems through our BLUEprint for MPA Success to stop illegal fishing, enforce regulations, allow wildlife recovery, and encourage positive economic opportunity for communities.

In Galapagos, there was once extensive illegal fishing, with an estimated 12,000 sharks poached annually in 2009, and park rangers did not have the skills, tools, or resources to do their job. WildAid partnered with the Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment and Galapagos National Park to change this.

With the implementation of our program, the AIS and VMS surveillance systems now monitor 100% of the park, all rangers are fully trained and certified, and successful prosecutions of environmental crimes increased to 84%. Due to strong enforcement, there have been zero reported shark finning cases in the reserve since 2014 and the Galapagos now boasts the densest shark population in the world. Although fishing boats surround the reserve, they fear to enter due to the threat of prosecution for illegal entry. The Galapagos National Park is a Regional Leader, exemplifying effective marine conservation for Latin America. They have previously sponsored training workshops in Ecuador, providing mentorship and sharing their best practices with other sites in the region.

We see Regional Leadership as key to WildAid’s expansion of the BLUEprint approach. In order to expand our program regionally, WildAid has been piloting different approaches to identify the right in-country partners that are ready to implement a complete Marine Protection System. We decided to test a Discovery Workshop approach, which would allow us to bring together multiple sites to discuss their current enforcement capabilities and needs.

2018 Discovery Workshop

Together with the Galapagos National Park, we hosted the first regional MPA enforcement workshop for Latin America in July as a pilot test for our new Discovery Workshop approach. Attendees from seven countries and more than 30 MPAs shared their successes and challenges in the protection of their MPA. The Galapagos acted as regional leaders at the workshop, sharing strategies and tools for enforcement shaped during our long-term partnership.

This workshop worked well because:

  1. Countries were pre-vetted to ensure each site was ready to partner with WildAid in implementing a complete Marine Protection System.
  2. Attendees were high level MPA managers or government officials with the ability to make decisions in these areas, which meant that we could start a conversation about partnership in person and then continue discussing the feasibility of conducting a project remotely.
  3. Galapagos National Park shared their own strategies and best practices for enforcing laws in the Galapagos Marine Reserve—highlighting WildAid’s role in shaping the current system. This allowed sites to see a real working example of how the BLUEprint can work at a particular site and what Regional Leadership means to us.
  4. WildAid staff had the opportunity to present other case studies of our work, give more details on the BLUEprint for MPA Success, invite the people at this workshop to discuss a potential pilot project in their own country or MPA.
  5. Each country presented their own approach to enforcement and the things that work well, and areas that could use help. This allowed WildAid to quickly identify where threats and opportunities aligned with our approach, as well as conduct follow-up conversations.
  6. Lastly, participants in the workshop learned from each other and identified simple ways to improve enforcement in their own sites. They developed concrete project plans that they could pitch to donors and NGO partners, and through the use of a WhatsApp group, participants are still able to share successes and challenges with each other.

The outcome of this workshop was that our participants received valuable insights into what makes a successful Marine Protection System, found peers confronting similar threats that could act as a future resource for them, and we found three sites that are likely candidates for a WildAid project and future assessment. The workshop allowed us to meet with the right people to facilitate logistics and act as on-the-ground partners and when used in tandem with the Project Feasibility Index, we could quickly assess the feasibility of a project in that area. Overall, this workshop provided a valuable opportunity for the Galapagos National Park to share their expertise in managing a comprehensive Marine Protection System, and lead the way to successful marine conservation throughout Latin America.

We look forward to sharing additional lessons learned with you as we continue scaling WildAid’s marine program.

How to scale WildAid’s marine program

Our oceans and the three billion people worldwide that depend on them are in trouble. Since 1970, there’s been a 50% decline in marine life populations, leaving many in danger of extinction. Effective marine protected areas (MPAs) can help address these problems. They can quadruple fish populations, provide a refuge for endangered species habitat and their nursery grounds, increase the resiliency of coral reefs against external impacts, and provide coastal communities with vital protein supplies and income.

WildAid’s marine program pioneered a comprehensive approach to marine enforcement that, over the last 20 years, has been proven to create effective MPAs. This year, WildAid has embarked on a mission to rapidly scale our marine program model globally. Together with local partners, we aim to make the promise of MPAs real, allowing fisheries, marine wildlife, and the communities that depend upon them, to recover and flourish.

We plan to do this using our newly launched BLUEprint for MPA Success, a managed framework to develop successful and sustainable enforcement systems for MPAs.Two key goals of this new framework are to increase the percentage of project sites that make the transition from planning for their enforcement system to fully implementing it, and to create measurable milestones to determine a site’s progress in establishing their enforcement system.

Over the last six months, we’ve screened 25 candidate sites for inclusion in our BLUEprint process, knowing that we currently have the resources to begin projects in just half of them. To facilitate this process, we developed a Project Feasibility Index (PFI), currently in its third version, to help us select the projects with the highest likelihood of long-term success.


We developed an initial version of the PFI in the first quarter of 2018 and have been testing and modifying it since. This first version was a series of yes/ no questions with room for notes and an overall recommendation at the bottom. We tested it in the field at six different sites, but when tested by three different people, the index was filled out differently by each tester. It was simply too subjective.

We modified the PFI and added a 10-point scale to each of the questions, and tested it at one site. While this version was better at creating an objective scoring system, we realized that there were some factors that would eliminate a site from consideration and that these should be our initial focus when screening a site. These included criteria such as, is it safe for WildAid staff to work there, and is there a solid on-the-ground partner interested in working with us.

In the third and current iteration, we established this list of elimination questions to ensure our staff focused their time screening sites and partners that fulfilled those basic criteria. The second section condensed our list of questions into 20 from four different categories that are rated on a 5-point scale. The higher the score, the better fit a site would be for the BLUEprint. We also incorporated an average score for each category represented by a chart. Initial results indicate that sites that achieve a 3.5 average or a 70+ overall score may be candidates for a scoping visit or moving on to the next step in the BLUEprint process—a comprehensive assessment of their enforcement system and development of a multi-year enforcement plan.

This index has thus far been tested at seven sites with consistency between users (and in the scoring) and we have plans to conduct additional scoping visits this fall to further verify its accuracy and modify it as needed.

In short, we learned that the PFI could be a valuable tool in both screening candidate sites and sharing our findings with prospective partners to help them become better candidates for the BLUEprint process. We hope that through those recommendations, those sites can eventually enter the BLUEprint process to support the success of their MPA. We look forward to sharing additional lessons learned with you all, as we continue scaling WildAid’s marine program and if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to reach out to us at [email protected].

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.


Saving Injured Sea Turtles in Ecuador

WildAid partners with the Machalilla Wildlife Hospital to rescue and rehabilitate injured sea turtles and other marine wildlife on Ecuador’s coast.

We’re excited to announce that WildAid has now partnered with the Machalilla wildlife hospital in Ecuador to provide comprehensive protection for sea turtles.

The seven species of sea turtle found today have been around for 110 million years. Unfortunately, six of those species are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List as endangered or critically endangered, primarily due to longline fisheries, harvesting of turtle meat and eggs, predation and habitat degradation, among others.

Did you know that the temperatures of the sand at sea turtle nesting sites determines the gender of the hatchlings? Cooler temperatures are mostly males and warmer temperatures are mostly females. (Laura Wais)

After spending many years at sea (females from different species reach maturity at different ages, with some as old as 20-50 years of age), sea turtles return to the same spots to nest– migrating as far as 1400 miles between their feeding and nesting grounds.

Ecuador’s beaches provide an ideal nesting spot for four sea turtle species (Green Turtles, Leatherbacks, Olive-Ridley and critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtles). Over the past year, we’ve partnered with park rangers along Ecuador’s coast on various sea turtle conservation projects that include underwriting at-sea patrols, removing abandoned drift nets, marking and protecting nests from predators, releasing more than 15,000 sea turtle hatchlings into the sea, and educating the local community about the importance of sea turtles.

Sea turtles, which can live up to 80 years, are an important part of a healthy marine ecosystem and can generate more than one million dollars in annual tourism revenue. This year, WildAid is expanding sea turtle conservation efforts by working with a grassroots wildlife rehabilitation hospital at Machalilla National Park that has treated nearly 150 sea turtles, 10 sea lions and 300 sea birds over the last four years.

Sea turtles treated in the wildlife rehabilitation hospital suffer from various injuries including lesions and internal damage by fishing hooks or from getting trapped in or consuming marine debris/plastics. The wildlife hospital volunteers treat injured marine wildlife from the entire country’s coast.

A sea turtle recovering in Machalilla’s wildlife hospital.

It is the only facility of its kind in Ecuador and was previously funded from t-shirt sales and donations from the community. With improved infrastructure and equipment provided by WildAid, the hospital will expand operations to provide more marine wildlife with a second chance at life. Currently, there are 17 resident turtles undergoing treatment and with our support, veterinarians will be able to treat up to 27 turtles over the next year.

Work with sea turtle populations provides an opportunity to inform our future work in Machalilla, as well as that of other regions. Data collected may include trends in wildlife injuries, infectious diseases, migration patterns, systemic medical issues, and human-animal interactions, among others. This data can help inform and educate tourism and fishing policy, and provide best practices for managing Ecuador’s MPAs and fisheries to conserve the country’s marine biodiversity.