Ecuador has announced the creation of a marine sanctuary around Galapagos Islands, protecting the world's largest population of sharks.

The Galapagos Islands' northern area of Darwin and Wolf, which covers 15,000 square miles of water, will be a no-take zone. Fishing and taking any of the natural resources are prohibited, a measure that supports an ecosystem that had long been receiving inadequate protection against threats such as overfishing.

It has been 19 years since the onset of the Galapagos Marine Reserve on the island, which spans more than 50,000 square miles of water. Even though industrial fishing has been banned within the island, small scale fishing is still allowed within the area. But with this new marine reserve, there will be specifically designated areas that will be a no-take zone, which means fishing will be prohibited completely.

Darwin and Wolf, along with several smaller portions of the islands, will be open for tourism and scientific expeditions. The government is urged to increase the islands' protection to preserve the natural habitat from global warming and illegal shark fin hunting.

Pelayo Salinas de Leon, senior marine scientist of the Charles Darwin Foundation, said that this is probably one of the "most spectacular and significant marine ecosystems that we have on the planet." His group was also the one that conducted the study in the region in 2013 and 2014. They hired expert divers and made use of cameras to record the number and types of marine species in the reefs surrounding Darwin and Wolf. In that study, Pelayo and his team found the largest biomass of reef fish, most of which were sharks.

According to Salinas, the sharks' abundant population within the island has been protected by the Marine Reserve but, due to poaching, the population has been threatened.

"The shark populations are still the most abundant on the planet, but the scientific studies show that the abundance of sharks has been declining over time," said Enric Sala of National Geographic, one of the authors of the study. He also added that there will be heightened surveillance over Darwin and Wolf to protect the islands from illegal fishing.

Sala and Salinas have added that preserving and protecting fish, especially sharks, will benefit not only the ecosystem but also the economy. In the Galapagos National Park 2015 report, it showed that extreme shark value to tourism outweighs the income-generating capability of the fishing industry. People from all over the world travel to Galapagos Islands just to visit, dive, and see the sharks and other marine animals.

Sala met with President Rafael Correa of Ecuador to discuss matters of conservation and protection in the region, as well as the rezoning of the marine reserve protecting the islands. Their discussions have culminated in the announcement of the new marine reserve in the Galapagos Islands.

There have been other announcements of marine protection globally in the past. In 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama increased the coverage of marine sanctuary in Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. Chile has also created the Nazca-Desventuradas Marine Park.

Photo: Ian Norman | Flickr

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