14 October 2005

Tour operator angered over shark hunt in Galapagos

The tenuous balance between the travel industry, conservation authorities and native fisherman in the Galapagos Islands was rocked when photographs of Celebrity Xpeditions employees displaying freshly killed sharks became public and the Naturalist Guides Association of Galapagos sent a letter to the Galapagos National Park urging strong action.

Although the incident is alleged to have taken place last January, it did not become public until late September.

"We learned about it last week from the Naturalist Guides Association of Galapagos, who filed a formal complaint," said Lynn Martenstein, vice president of corporate communications for Celebrity’s parent company, Royal Caribbean Cruises.

The three crew members were "relieved of duty as soon as we learned of the incident" and turned over to police in Ecuador, she said.

Lindblad Expeditions, a Galapagos operator, put out a press release urging the Galapagos National Park to take "severe action against Celebrity Xpeditions for alleged illegal shark fishing by crew members while on board the company's vessel, the Xpedition."

It is highly unusual for one company to call another to task publicly, especially when the two have worked together before -- Celebrity sought assistance from Lindblad on creating a sustainable-tourism program when it first entered the region in 2004.

But the Galapagos is a unique destination.

"Someone sent photos of dead sharks, but the news had already broken in Ecuador," said Mary Jo Viederman, Lindblad's vice president of communications. "We only put out a statement after the National Park had filed for a procedure to start an investigation. We knew this was a public story that was going to come out and engage our colleagues and friends and people whom we’ve worked with for many years."

When someone gets caught with illegal sharks on board, it "makes everyone look bad," said Viederman. "It draws attention to tourism in the Galapagos, to foreign operations and to whether ecotourism is really a farce."

Killing sharks in the Galapagos is illegal. Fishing is outlawed in the waters near the islands, which are a marine reserve, but sharks are a protected species even beyond the reserve. The fishing restrictions have pitted native fishermen against conservation authorities and tour operators for many years. When travel companies get caught fishing, it threatens to stir up the historically bitter issue.

"It's a very unstable situation," said Viederman. "There are times when the fishermen strike. There have been threats to tourism people. There is unbelievable instability between political leaders, fishermen, the increasing population and endangered species."

And then there are tour operators, including Lindblad Expeditions, which traces its history in the area back to 1968 when its president's father, Lars-Eric Lindblad, was the first to conduct a nonscientific expedition to Galapagos. Lindblad Expeditions President Sven-Olof Lindblad founded the Galapagos Conservation Society in 1997, which has raised $3 million from its guests for conservation efforts in the Galapagos.

"Sven is really committed to Galapagos," said Viederman. "The rules that the national park uses today are based on Lars-Eric's investigation of how to tour Galapagos in the least impactful way. Because of this incident, there has to be a coming together of tour operators so they’re all on the same page about conservation."

Royal Caribbean's Martenstein said the alleged actions "are in total violation of Celebrity's strict environmental policies, and any employee who willfully disregards those policies will be fired and face any subsequent consequences."

But Lindblad Expeditions thinks the buck stops with the operator. "It's not enough to say, 'You’re fired,' " said Viederman. "The responsibility is on the tour operator. Any consequence has to be doled out to the tour operator who sanctions these operations. The tour operators have to be accountable and vigilant."

According to Martenstein, Celebrity is taking a more preemptive approach in the future. "We are looking at our processes internally to figure out how this could possibly have happened, given our strict environmental protocols, and how to make sure it never happens again."

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to dcogswell@travelweekly.com.

Rebecca Tobin contributed to this report.

Source: www.underwatertimes.com


At 2:15 AM, Anonymous Galapagos Islands said...

I think that's terrible! I didn't know about those sharks until I found your site. It is really bad that authorities can avoid something like that to happen. We should do something more for a magical place like the Galapagos Islands


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