Spiny Lobster in the Galapagos is Making a Sustainable Comeback

Posted on 26 October 2015

Old fishermen who lived in the Galapagos Islands in the 1950s remember scooping lobsters out of tidal pools, such were their numbers.
Old fishermen who lived in the Galapagos Islands in the 1950s remember scooping lobsters out of tidal pools, such were their numbers. Fast forward to the new millennium, where the odds of encountering sizeable numbers of the sought-after crustaceans had become worryingly low – and not just in pools. Now, once on the brink of collapse, the local spiny lobster population’s vital signs are on the uptick again, but what explains the rollercoaster ride and the comeback?

Shooting to unwanted fame
By the 1960s, the spiny lobster had become a commercial target in the Galapago Islands, earning it the dubious title of “most lucrative marine resource in the islands” until it lost it to sea cucumbers. But according to Jorge Ramírez of the WWF Galapagos Programme, “by the early 2000s, catches were on the decline as a result of rampant overfishing”.

The problem was not only that the spiny lobster was on its way to local extinction; this is one of many species that occupy a keystone role in the marine food web. Their over-exploitation could have serious consequences for marine communities and ecosystem stability throughout the archipelago.

How accountability has changed the name of the game
What it boiled down to was this–how could we keep lobsters in the sea and fishers happy in Galapagos? As of 2015, it looks as if a solution has been found. Now, the spiny lobster is on its way to recovery thanks to a closely-knit collaboration between WWF, NGO partners, fishers and local authorities.

Squeezing more value out of lobster
The results took a while to kick in. WWF has invested efforts in Galapagos since 2009, in order to bring about a radical improvement to the sustainability of the lobster fisheries, but also to local fishers’ livelihoods.

One breakthrough was the realization that fishers could get more value from lobster by selling them frozen or live, rather than just the tails. In 2015, local fishers began selling live lobsters directly to tourists and local people (bypassing middlemen), increasing their profits as a result. Now, WWF-Ecuador is trying to increase the participation of the cooperative in the local market, by providing advice on to maintain and trade live lobsters.

The cooperative still sells mostly to the Ecuadorian mainland. But whereas middlemen from the continent once dominated the trade, now the Galapagos cooperative owns more than 50% of the market. It also sells live and whole frozen lobsters at prices that are 3 times higher than before.

From higher value to a resilient ecosystem
In the case of the spiny lobster, higher value products and a resilient ecosystem are 2 sides of the same coin. One cannot work without the other. This is why WWF has put 2 strategies to work to support a sustainable spiny lobster trade.

One involved introducing a certification system as an incentive for fishers to apply sustainable practices. The other was based on the application of the best science to help lobster fishers monitor and manage their fishery in a sustainable manner.

Building trust in the market
To build buyers' trust in spiny lobsters, WWF rallied the Galapagos National Park staff and fishers to co-design the 'Galapagos Seal' for fishing products. This label is an assurance to consumers that lobsters meet the highest quality standards, and that they have been caught based on principles of social responsibility and sustainability (e.g. respected catched quotas, seasonal closures and the use of selective fishing gear to avoid the unintended catch of other species).

Thanks to the label, fishers will get better prices, which means they can earn more while fishing fewer lobsters. For Kléber López, fishing cooperative manager, "the Galapagos Seal will be very important to us because it will allow us to reach export markets."

A solid management system
Making sustainable lobster from the Galapagos famous is one thing – it’s quite another to make sure that the local population is well taken care of. In 2015, WWF with the Galapagos National Park authorities, fishers, scientists and NGO partners brought about a dramatic improvement to how the spiny lobster is managed in the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

A team of experts created an adaptive management system for this fishery, drawing on 4 indicators: catch, catch per unit effort, mortality and reproduction. These indicators reveal the population’s vital signs and tell us if the fishery is healthy, recovering or in critical condition.

Each year, authorities and fishers will review the status of the spiny lobster fishery and decide on the best management option. The system includes a range of management measures: putting a cap on how many lobsters can be caught, limiting fishing effort and closing nursery areas.

“Before, it was very difficult to implement effective management measures because we did not have enough scientific information, so we improved our monitorings and methodologies. Now we have an accounting and simple system to ensure the recovery of the spiny lobster in the Galapagos,” tells Harry Reyes, who is responsible for the Conservation and Use of Marine Ecosystems of the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

The experience is another reminder that the best way to achieve sustainable fisheries is by combining sound science and genuine participation of fishers.
Fisher holding spiny lobster, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
© Jorge Ramirez / WWF