The Highest Ecuadorian court has ruled, and the limits on the harvesting of sea-cucumbers have been determined to be legal and must be upheld.
"This is a great victory for conservation in the Galapagos," said Captain Paul Watson, founder and president of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, whose ship the Sirenian is on permanent patrol in the Galapagos Marine Reserve.
The conflict began in May of 2004 and was appeased when a limit of four million sea cucumbers was granted to the fishermen, but erupted again into a major confrontation with the fishermen and the authorities in early June. Fishermen occupied the National Park offices, held hostages, disrupted the tourist industry and threatened to kill the giant tortoises unless they were allowed a fishery with no limits on sea cucumbers.
The fishermen shot themselves in the foot in mid-June when they challenged the National Park on the right to set limits on marine resources. The fishermen argued that their right to fish was a stronger right than the rights of the National Park to impose conservation limits.
The fishermen won the injunction from a local judge who ruled that the limits were unfair and impeded the ability of the fishermen to make a living. The judge struck down the limits, but in so doing struck down the fishery altogether.
The fishery could not proceed without official guidelines and policy, and the fishermen were not allowed to even take the four million that had been granted to them in May because that quota had been struck down along with the entire structure of regulations.
In their greed for an unlimited take the fishermen denied themselves the four million sea cucumbers that had been reluctantly allotted to them in May.
In the meantime the National Park and the Environment Ministry of Ecuador appealed the injunction to the nation's Constitutional Tribunal.
The high court ruled on July 22 that since the Galapagos Islands are protected as a marine reserve, the authorities were correct to consider "aspects related to protecting biodiversity and the environment" when setting limits for fishing
The ruling bolstered a participatory decision-making forum designed to give island residents a say in policy. Fishermen had tried to circumvent this forum by taking their claim to court. Now they must resume talks within this forum in order to help draft policy.
"I think that we have all won with this decision, including the fishermen, since the legal framework in place for us to manage the Galapagos marine reserve has been recognized," said Edwin Naula, the director of Galapagos National Park..
Director Naula said environmental authorities and fishermen would meet to discuss setting new dates for sea cucumber fishing since the original two-month season concludes this week.
It is now too late for the fishermen to take the sea cucumbers as the season runs through June and July. The Park has banned sea cucumber fishing for 2005 and 2006 in an effort to protect the species in the islands.
Needless to say, tensions are running high in Galapagos between the islands' twenty-thousand residents who are seeking to make a living off fishing and those who make a living off tourism. The fishermen are angry at environmentalists who are striving to protect the world-famous archipelago from over development.
Captain Paul Watson, the president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, is concerned that more and more people are moving to the islands from the mainland. "The islands are attracting fishermen from Ecuador who have already depleted costal mainland fisheries. The rate of growth in the Galapagos is escalating. Development is everywhere. The Galapagos National Park is now the last stand. If we can't save these profoundly unique and treasured islands from being trod upon and destroyed by humanity, we won't be able to save anything in this world from over exploitation by the sheer weight of human numbers."
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is working to raise funds and material to continue to support the work of the Galapagos National Park rangers in their efforts to police the large marine reserve around these islands located 625 miles west of Ecuador's coastline.