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  Page updated:29.06.2009

About the Galapagos Marine Reserve

 A school of rays feed near the surface, around Daphne Minor Island.

The GMR is the most important Marine Reserve in Ecuador and the second largest in the world.  It is 133,000 km² of World Heritage.

The creation of the Galapagos Marine Reserve dates back several decades. Aware of the fragility of the marine ecosystems considering the increasing human activity on the Islands, the Terrestrial Management Plan of the National Park of 1974 already recommended the protection of a two nautical mile stretch of sea around each island. 


The waters around the Galapagos Islands at a distance of 40 miles are protected. 

With the Organic Law of Special Regime for the Conservation and Sustainable Development of the Galapagos (LOREG) of 1998, the protected area is extended and formally becomes the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR). 

The area between the islands of the Marine Reserve is 133,000 square kilometers of sea surface. It includes the inland waters of the Islands (50,100 km²) and the entire area within 40 nautical miles measured from the coasts of the outer Islands. 

In 2001, the GMR was included in the list of World Heritage Sites, thus recognizing its enormous ecological, cultural, and economic value for the conservation and maintenance of unique species in the world.

The importance of the Marine Reserve

Galapagos ecosystems cannot survive without the protection of the marine ecosystem.  Many native and endemic species depend entirely on marine environments and evolutionary and ecological processes that occur on land and that have a direct relationship with the sea. 

The Galapagos flightless cormorant has undergone a curious evolution.  In the absence of predators, it has stopped flying to become an expert underwater swimmer, obtaining all its food below the surface.

Penguins, cormorants, sea lions, Galapagos fur seals, and albatrosses, for example, rest on land but feed exclusively at sea.

More than 2,900 existing marine species have been reported up to now, of which 25% of the marine organisms are endemic.  There are several species of marine mammals like whales, dolphins, and sea lions, making a total of 24, with two endemic species.  This also prompted the declaration of the Whale Sanctuary in 1990. 

In order to maintain the natural balance among the different species and to maintain their ecosystems, it is vital to preserve their sources of food.  Like the biodiversity of terrestrial ecosystems, the marine environment represents an important ecosystem that deserves special treatment. 

The designation of the Galapagos Marine Reserve recognizes the principles of conservation, and creates the legal basis for such special treatment. 

It all starts with the ocean currents...

The Islands are a meeting point for very different shallow and deep ocean currents.  Thanks to them we find the variety of species that inhabit the Islands. 


The different currents that converge at the Galapagos give rise to the biodiversity and high endemic characteristic of the Islands.  

The South-Equatorial surface water current is one of the main ones and flows in an east-west direction.

In addition to this current there are the cold waters of the Peruvian current coming from the south (also known as the Humboldt current), and the tropical waters of the Panama current coming from the north.

The Cromwell Equatorial Sub current, from the west, is possibly the most important.  It flows along the ocean bottom and rises to the surface when it reaches the Galapagos, bringing cold waters rich in nutrients and creating local areas of algal blooms and nutrient enrichment in the surface layers of the sea. These nutrients form the food chain that eventually maintain top predators such as sharks, sea lions, and many migratory species such as whales.

Different environments

The Marine Reserve contains different environments that harbor several high diversity ecosystems with an abundant number of species, many of them unique - one of the highest levels of endemism in the world.


Click here to learn more about the different marine environments and the species that live in them.

The "shallows", underwater mountains or volcanoes that rise up to less than 100 meters from the surface in some cases are important feeding areas for birds and marine mammals that inhabit the coasts of the Galapagos. Around these structures and above them, are special oceanographic conditions that favor marine life, where feeding aggregations often form, consisting of species of various origins: pelagic and migratory, such as tuna, sharks, and billfish; and of marine-coastal origin such as sea lions, birds, marine iguanas, and turtles.

The other major marine habitats of the Galapagos Marine Reserve are the rocky bottoms, followed by vertical rocky walls "cliffs", sandy beaches, and very few coral reefs; in addition to the beach and sand coastal vegetation that has a high degree of endemism.

Moreover, coastal lagoons, wetlands, and areas of fresh and marine water exchange are home to unique species. 

The mangrove areas are recruitment zones for several species of fish, crustaceans, and mollusks. They are also nesting grounds for several marine and terrestrial birds unique in the world, such as the mangrove finch. 

Zoning for proper management of the Marine Reserve.

An important segment of the local population of Galapagos is economically dependent on the Galapagos Marine Reserve, but overfishing of species such as the sea cucumber and lobster alter entire ecosystems and threaten the long-term resource, affecting not only nature in the Galapagos but also the profitability of fisheries. 


Official Map of the Galapagos National Park and the Ministry of Environment of Ecuador 

> Environmental management and land use planning: Zoning for responsible development 

The division of the territory according to its characteristics and permitted uses allows, on the one hand, the prevention or minimization of the negative effect of human impacts that the Galapagos ecosystems are subjected to, and secondly, a rational use of goods and services that these ecosystems generate for society. 

Contrary to the old model, that considered the protected area and the unprotected area independently, the new zoning model takes into account that each area is inter-related to the other, recognizing that the environmental hazards (such as invasive species, pollution ...) come from populated areas and that the development of the population (through tourism, fishing, food self-sufficiency, etc.) depends on the conservation of the ecosystems. 

Zoning is not rigid; on the contrary, it is subject to changes according to the needs and circumstances that emerge and can be reformulated as appropriate for the better fulfillment of the goal and objectives of the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

The zones of the Galapagos Marine Reserve are the following: 


This zone includes fishing, tourism, science, and conservation activities, as well as navigation and maneuvers (Patrol, SAR, etc.).  This area will be made up mainly by deep waters that are inside and outside the baseline.


The uses of this zone are subject to additional restrictions, in order to protect environments, resources, or activities that are important and remarkably sensitive to alterations.

a) Comparison and Protection Subzone.
These zones serve as control areas for the measurement of the effects of human uses, and to study biodiversity and ecology in the absence of human impacts.  In these zones only science and education are allowed. Fishing and tourism are not allowed.

b) Conservation and Non-Extractive Use Subzone. 
The main use of this subzone is for aquatic tourism, but it also includes science, conservation, and education. In this subzone all or some of the following activities are allowed: snorkeling, scuba diving, boat rides, and whale watching from the boat.

c) Conservation and Extractive and Non-Extractive Use Subzone.
The extractive uses will include artisanal fishing, navigation, education, science, tourism, patrolling, and S.A.R. and military maneuvers.  These additional controls and regulations will vary depending on the sensitivity of the site, the state of the resource to be exploited, the needs of other users, etc. 

d) Temporary Special Management Areas.
Eventually temporarily managed areas for experimental or recovery purposes may be specially determined on established areas, whose surface area will be defined for each case by the Participatory Management Board regarding the proposal of any sector, that will be approved by AIM.  

This zone corresponds to the waters near the five ports of the Islands (Puerto Ayora, Baltra, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, Puerto Villamil, and Puerto Velasco Ibarra).  Each zone may have subzones to control, allow, or restrict certain activities.

These subzones may be the following: 

a) Experimental Subzone.
This subzone belongs in the temporary subzone category. This is an area that is under a special management regime for experimentation purposes.

b) Recovery Subzone.
This subzone belongs in the temporary subzone category. It is an area that has suffered degradation, for any reason (for example, over-exploitation, pollution, physical damage from tourism, storm damage, El Niño) the PMB can declare and define a recovery zone, with complete protection and/or special rules to help its recovery.  The Recovery Zone designation will remain until the PMB decides to reverse it. 

El Niño

For centuries, Latin American fishermen noticed warm water currents that appeared every few years, always toward the end of December.  The consequences were devastating. It would rain like never before, the water temperature would change and many marine animals would die of malnutrition.  This event was called El Niño (the child Jesus), because it began during Christmas. 

Today we know much more about its causes, although its effects are not less dramatic. 

The phenomenon is due to the differences between both sides (East and West) of the tropical Pacific: 

The water in the West Pacific Ocean, near Australia and Indonesia, is 8 degrees warmer than that recorded in the East, on the coast of Latin America.  Therefore, the climate is more humid and it rains a lot more in the West than in the Eastern Pacific. 

Every few years, there is a weakening of the winds that keep the flow of the major ocean currents, so that warm water masses start flowing from the West to the East Pacific (toward the Galapagos).  The waters in the West cool off, and the waters in the East heat up.  The Peru or Humboldt current that brings cold water from the south, weakens, allowing the water to heat up more. 

When the water temperature changes, its salinity also changes, altering marine ecosystems, as all marine plants and animals are very sensitive to salinity.

While this occurs, the air also changes.  The atmospheric pressure rises in the East and drops in the West, changing winds and the rain. In the East, in Latin America, there is an unusual increase in rainfall, while major droughts occur in Asia and Oceania.  When El Niño ends, the heavy rains give way to severe droughts. 

The population of Galapagos penguins, a unique species on the planet, and in danger of extinction, particularly suffers the effects of El Niño.  In 1983 it fell by 83%.

The events usually occur every two to eight years and can last up to 18 months.  The last two El Niño events of great intensity were in 1982-83 and 1997-98. 

In Galapagos, the effects of El Niño on marine species are particularly noteworthy.  In 1983 for example, the population of Galapagos penguins, an endemic and endangered bird species, fell by 83%.  Almost half the population of flightless cormorants, unique in the world, died. 

Between 45% and 70% of marine iguanas died, according to their location. Many sea lions also died, especially abandoned youth, additionaly due to skin diseases.

In 1997-98, El Niño returned with the same force.  Scenes of dead sea lions and marine iguanas were common, and their numbers could have well gone down to half.  The penguin count was the lowest in history, and many species of marine birds did not reproduce.

On land, the effects are also dramatic, with the proliferation of certain plants due to the rains, especially vines, and the increase of populations of certain birds, some of which collapse shortly after the event.

El Niño events of different intensities have occurred recently in 1982-83, 1986-1987, 1991-1992, 1993, 1994, 1997-1998, 2002-2003, 2004-2005, and 2006-2007.

Despite great technological advances in meteorology, the arrival or magnitude of El Niño still cannot be accurately predicted.





Applied marine research

Fisheries management

Marine control and monitoring

Our work

Applied marine research

Research on pelagic fish in the South-Eastern
Pacific Ocean

Status of sea cucumbers and lobster in the Galapagos Marine Reserve

Marine Bathymetry

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oceanographic conditions

Monitoring of marine ecosystems

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development of the fishing sector

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Fish Aggregator

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