Guardians of Malpelo

Migrating whale sharks travel through Malpelo to get cleaned and to feed. This whale shark is feeding on the spawn of jacks at dusk.

Colombia has some of the strictest illegal fishing laws in the world, but people still need to stand up and enforce them. Erika Lopez has taken on the role of guardian of Malpelo, an island 314 miles (506 kilometers) west of Colombia. 

Lopez has dedicated her life to protecting sharks and her country’s rich culture and biodiversity. She is the director and cofounder, along with Jacob Griffiths, of Biodiversity Conservation Colombia (BCC), a nonprofit nongovernmental organization (NGO) dedicated to protecting the iconic species and endangered sharks around Malpelo from illegal shark fishing and the fin trade decimating shark species around the world.

The volcanic rock of the island emerges above the surface from more than 2 miles (3.4 km) deep, with 11 islets and many underwater mountains surrounding it. Designated as a marine protected area by the Colombian government in 1995, the Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Mission Blue Hope Spot.

Jacob Griffiths (center) with the crew of the Silky.
Jacob Griffiths (center) with the crew of the Silky.
The global problem of illegal, undocumented, and unregulated fishing drives the shark-fin trade economy.
The global problem of illegal, undocumented, and unregulated fishing drives the shark-fin trade economy.

As part of the Eastern Pacific Marine Corridor, an invisible superhighway for pelagic animals, the area sustains a high shark biomass. The corridor boasts migration routes for many species, including hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, silky sharks, Galápagos sharks, tuna, marlins, and turtles. Scientists know silky sharks in the Eastern Tropical Pacific cross more than six countries in their migration routes to feed and reproduce. They often feed near the surface while following tuna, jacks, and other pelagic fish, making them easy targets for illegal shark fishers and commercial fishers.

“We don’t want the science to be a paleontological study,” Lopez said about her desire to preserve shark populations. “They were here a long time ago; now they’re gone. Science must be a tool to prevent things from happening — not explain why they’re gone.” 

Like the Galápagos and Cocos islands, Malpelo is a cleaning station for many pelagic animals. Cold upwellings from the deep bring nutrients that maintain healthy patch reefs and local populations of amazing schools of fish. Thousands of jacks, snappers, leather basses, creolefish, butterflyfish, and more make their homes around Malpelo. 

Nutrients also flow into the ocean from above the surface, as the guano from the largest colony of Nazca booby birds in the world creates an ecosystem on the volcanic cliffs above. Endemic lizards and crabs also cover the islands. 

All these animals rely on the ocean’s abundance, but it’s all under siege. 

Although shark finning is illegal in all of Colombia’s waters, illegal fishers still travel hundreds of miles to take animals from this majestic underwater mountain range. Like many targeted places in the open ocean, Malpelo is in permanent danger from the threats of illegal, undocumented, and unreported fishing. Despite the authorities’ efforts to stop the activity, the island’s isolation makes it hard to patrol. Naval forces and other NGOs have failed in the past because of the enormous amount of money it takes to cover this vast area and support a vessel and crew. 

Lopez and Griffiths met in 2016 on a tourist scuba diving vessel, where Lopez worked as a research diver, instructor, and dive guide. They dived in Malpelo’s waters with hundreds of sharks and surfaced to find longline fishers catching those sharks. Lopez knew that she had to combat these illegal fishers. She would chase them away and take their lines, liberating the animals as quickly as possible to keep them alive. She was often too late or outnumbered, and many animals would die.

“Foreign vessels would come and pillage a rich marine protected area that is the pride of Colombia,” Griffiths explained. He and Lopez hatched a plan and created BCC with a mission to protect the flora and fauna of Malpelo and stop illegal fishers from destroying the region. They purchased and refitted a 55-foot catamaran they named Silky after the sharks. The vessel is now a permanent surveillance boat operating around the island.

The governments of Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, and Colombia signed a pact in 2021 to protect the oceanic superhighway that sharks and other species use, but the BCC and Silky crew patrol and protect the waters around Malpelo 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. 

“The only way to take care of a place like this is to be here,” Lopez said. “That is the only solution.”

Erika Lopez holds a ball of long line recovered by her crew.
Erika Lopez holds a ball of long line recovered by her crew.
A crew recovers a drift net with shark casualties.
A crew recovers a drift net with shark casualties.
Malpelo Island boasts the largest population of masked booby birds (Sula granti).
Malpelo Island boasts the largest population of masked booby birds (Sula granti). Many animals suffer due to the impacts of overfishing.

Lopez built and forged strategic partnerships with the Colombian navy, Colombia’s National System of Protected Areas, and an ecotourism dive adventure company. Although she has had success protecting sharks and the waters surrounding Malpelo, she knows the need to expand despite limited resources and a large area needing regular patrols. While the Silky works, Lopez can’t singlehandedly stop the Chinese fishing fleet, commercial overfishing, or the insatiable appetite for shark-fin soup. 

“The animals suffer a lot,” Lopez said. “We don’t want to see the reality for what it is, but it’s cruelty — just another form of torture to grab animals from the ocean to mutilate them.”

The Marine Megafauna Foundation reports that the global oceanic shark and ray population has declined by 71 percent over the past 50 years, largely due to overfishing. While there have been efforts to protect swimways for more than 20 years, that’s not enough. 

“If sharks get taken by legal industrial fishing when they leave protected areas, of course there will be a dwindling shark population,” Griffiths said. “Industrialized overfishing and illegal, undocumented, and unreported fishing are emptying our oceans.”

People created these problems, but people can also be the solution. The decimation of shark and ray populations happens under the watch of all the world’s countries. It’s up to all of us to give sharks a voice. Learn more about helping BCC protect Malpelo at biodiversityconservationco.org.


© Alert Diver — Q2 2024

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