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Marine scientists have discovered 30 new species in the waters off the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, after a five-year expedition that shows just how little we know about the deep sea and how unexplored the environment is. 

Published in the journal Scientific Reports, scientists from the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), the Galapagos National Park Directorate, the Ocean Exploration Trust (OET) and an international team of deep-sea experts identified 30 new deep-sea invertebrate species within the Galapagos Marine Reserve. 

The species were found on seamounts, which are underwater mountains that do not break the ocean’s surface. According to a release, the team used Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs) to explore depths of up to 3400 meters. The new species found include: 10 new species of bamboo corals and four new octocorals, including the first giant solitary soft coral in the Tropical Eastern Pacific, one new species of brittle star, 11 new sponge species and four new species of squat lobsters. 

Nicole Raineault, chief scientist at OET, says, “The many discoveries made on this expedition showcase the importance of deep-sea exploration to developing an understanding of our oceans.”

The Galapagos Islands became famous for their biodiversity and endemic species after Charles Darwin first visited in 1835 and spent five weeks surveying the archipelago. While he found that most of the species were ‘aboriginal creations, found nowhere else’, the plants and animals he studied still showed a relationship to those on the mainland, which led Darwin to form the seeds of his Theory of Evolution. After publishing “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” in 1859, Darwin’s theories cemented the Galapagos Islands as ‘hallowed scientific ground,’ a reputation that continues today.

The isolation of the islands allowed for and forced species to adapt and evolve over time to survive their unique habitats. Even today, as conditions change, animals and plants on the islands continue to develop into new hybrids and species. In 2017, a group of finches were discovered in the process of becoming a new species. In 2019, a species of giant tortoise that scientists hadn’t seen alive for 110 years was found and in February, 30 giant tortoises that partially descended from two extinct species were studied. 

The Galapagos Marine Reserve protects seamounts from fishing activity and deep-sea mining. The discovery comes after Ecuador raised concerns about a massive fishing fleet of mostly Chinese vessels operating on the edge of the Galapagos’ protected waters. China has since issued new regulations for its fishing fleet, including harsher penalties for captains and companies found to have engaged in illegal fishing activity. 

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Ecuador is trying to establish a corridor of marine reserves between Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia to seal off important areas of marine diversity. Efforts are also being made to extend the exclusive economic zone to a 560km circumference around the islands. 

Ecuador has sounded the alarm after its navy discovered around 260 mostly Chinese-flagged fishing vessels in the ocean surrounding the Galápagos islands. The fleet, found just outside a protected zone, raises the prospect of damage to the protected region’s diverse ecosystem and marine life.

Chinese Fishing Fleets in the Galápagos

The fleet was spotted with satellite imaging on the borders of the Galápagos Protection Zone. The fleet was found between the boundaries of the zone and Ecuador’s territorial waters, an area that serves as a major migration route for sea creatures, including many endangered species.

Former environment minister Yolanda Kakabadse says, “This fleets’s size and aggressiveness against marine species is a big threat to the balance of species in the Galápagos.” Kakabadse and Roque Sevilla, ex-mayor of Quito, have been put in charge of designing a ‘protection strategy’ for the islands. Sevilla says that diplomatic requests would be made to request the fleet’s withdrawal. “Unchecked Chinese fishing just on the edge of the protected zone is ruining Ecuador’s efforts to protect marine life in the Galápagos,” he says. He added that the team would also seek to enforce international agreements that protect migratory species. 

You might also like: Canned Fish in Hong Kong Found With Metallic Contaminants

chinese vessels Galápagos
A Marine Traffic image showing the fishing fleets, represented by the orange arrows at the bottom left, as of July 27 2020 (Source: Hong Kong Free Press).

Chinese fishing vessels come every year to the seas surrounding the Galápagos islands, a UNESCO Heritage Site, but this year’s fleet is one of the largest seen in recent years. The Galápagos Marine Reserve has one of the world’s largest concentrations of shark species, including the endangered whale and hammerhead sharks. UNESCO describes the islands as a ‘living museum and a showcase for evolution’. 

Ecuador is trying to establish a corridor of marine reserves between Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia to seal off important areas of marine diversity. Kakabadse says that efforts will also be made to extend the exclusive economic zone to a 560km circumference around the islands. 

The Ecuadorean navy has been monitoring the fleet since it was first spotted in the week of July 20. The country’s defence minister Oswaldo Jarrín says, “We are on alert, conducting surveillance, patrolling to avoid an incident such as what happened in 2017.”

The incident in question refers to the capture by the navy within the Marine Reserve of a Chinese vessel, which was found to be carrying 300 tons of marine wildlife, mostly sharks. 

UPDATE AUGUST 11: Ecuador’s navy is conducting surveillance of the Chinese fishing fleet, which has grown to 340 vessels. China has promised a “zero tolerance” approach to illegal fishing and has proposed a moratorium on fishing in the area between September and November. The fishing fleets usually leave the area before that period.’

UPDATE SEPTEMBER 18: According to environmental protection NGO Oceana, the fleet are mainly fishing for squid, a vital part of the diet of endemic creatures including hammerhead sharks, as well as tuna. It has also been determined that the vessels disabled their public tracking devices, typically done to hide illegal activities.

This is a developing story. Follow Earth.Org for more updates. 

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