The Galapagos Marine Reserve is home to nearly 3,000 marine species, including such common fish as pompano, better known as jacks.

Photograph by Julian Osinski, MyShot
  • The Galapagos Marine Reserve is one of the largest and most biologically diverse marine protected areas (MPAs) in the world. The MPA covers 133,000 square kilometers (51,352 square miles), surrounding the Galapagos Islands in the eastern Pacific Ocean, about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) off Ecuador’s coast.

    The marine reserve is home to a wide range of species: whales, dolphins, albatrosses, sharks, sea lions, penguins, fur seals, rays, cormorants, marine iguanas, sea turtles, and tropical fishes. More than 2,900 marine species have been monitored, according to the Galapagos National Park Administration.

    Several different habitats exist in the reserve. Underwater volcanoes or mountains, known as seamounts, rise to near the water’s surface and provide feeding grounds for some fish, such as tuna and sharks, as well as birds, sea lions, and turtles. There are also reefs, underwater cliffs, wetlands, and lagoons.

    The rich biodiversity is the result of the islands’ location along the Equator. Warm and cold ocean currents mix with nutrient-rich cold water that rises from the ocean floor. Those nutrients create the food chain that sustains marine life, from tiny animals like the sea urchin to giant fish like the whale shark.


    The Galapagos Islands have been recognized as a unique ecosystem since Charles Darwin wrote about the islands in his books The Voyage of the Beagle and On the Origin of Species.

    Darwin, a biologist studying fossils and animal species in South America in the mid-1800s, used the finches of the Galapagos to illustrate his theory of natural selection. He also wrote about the area’s tortoises, fish, and marine mammals.

    Scientists have conducted extensive surveys of the archipelago for more than a century. In 1904, American scientists stayed in the Galapagos for an entire year, cataloging species, their behavior, and their habitat.

    In 1959, the government of Ecuador created Galapagos National Park. In the 1970s, human activity such as agriculture and development was increasing on the islands. The surrounding waters began to suffer from pollution from agricultural runoff and urban waste. The Terrestrial Management Plan of the National Park, written in 1974, recommended protecting two nautical miles of sea around each of the area’s 19 main islands.

    Ecuador created the marine protected area (MPA) in 1998. The reserve includes the area within 40 nautical miles from the islands’ coasts, as well as the islands’ inland waters, such as lagoons and streams.

    Such a lengthy process to create a marine protected area is not unusual. “Many take at least 10 years to get to designation status. At least years,” says Caitlyn Toropova, the Marine Protected Areas coordination officer for the World Conservation Union.

    The reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized for its value in conserving and maintaining unique species. It is managed by the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park.


    The MPA is designed to protect the biodiversity of the islands and the surrounding waters.

    The park was also created to ensure the sustainable use of natural resources by local residents. Tens of thousands of people live on the Galapagos Islands, which include an Ecuadorian military base.

    Some agriculture and fishing are allowed in the MPA, and tourism is the area’s most important economic activity. More than 100,000 people visit the Galapagos Islands every year. The sustainable use practices of the MPA seek to balance the demands of the tourist industry and the pristine habitats tourists seek.

    Environmental goals

    Preserving native marine life is a key goal of the reserve. One of its most unique species is the marine iguana, the only aquatic lizard in the world. The iguanas are about 1-1.5 meters (3-5 feet) long and live along the shore of the islands. They also live among the lagoons and mangrove swamps. Marine iguanas eat seaweed and other algae found clinging to underwater rocks and tree roots. The lizards dive up to nine meters (30 feet) to graze on algae.

    Some amount of fishing is allowed, but the MPA maintains strict regulations.

    Poaching, or illegal fishing and hunting, is a threat to marine species in the MPA. It is legal to hunt many animals in the MPA. Sometimes, poachers are fishermen who overfish, or harvest more than the MPA allows. Tuna and sharks are often overfished. Some of the most overfished animals are lobsters and sea cucumbers.

    It is always illegal to hunt some animals in the Galapagos MPA. Sea turtles are illegally hunted for their meat. Sea lions are poached for their teeth and genitals, which are used in Asian medicines.

    Non-native plants and animals also threaten the Galapagos marine ecosystem. Dogs and cats prey on tortoises, marine birds, and marine iguanas. Cockroaches feed on native insects, destroying an important part of the marine food web.


    In some places, the Galapagos Marine Reserve encourages tourism and recreational activities like scuba diving. It also allows people to harvest natural resources, such as fish. The reserve is host to scientific research and educational work.

    Scientific Use

    Applied research is one of the reserve’s key missions. This research includes direct interaction with fish such as hammerhead sharks. Marine biologists also monitor the status of the reserve’s sea cucumber and lobster populations. Scientists study the interaction between the marine and land ecosystems.

    Some scientists work to support sustainable fisheries with fish aggregation devices (FADs). These tools, usually large buoys placed in the ocean, attract fish such as tuna. This makes the fish easier to find and catch.

    The MPA focuses “on the development of various research projects to increase knowledge of marine ecosystems for the proper management and administration of resources,” according to the Directorate of Galapagos National Park.

    In some areas of the reserve, researchers study the impact of human activity on the marine ecosystem. They study fishing methods, agricultural practices, and pollution left by tour boats. Underwater and coastal cleanup may also be a part of a scientific expedition.

    Commercial Use

    Commercial fishing is allowed in some areas of the reserve. The lobster and sea cucumber fisheries are important sources of income to the local population, and fishermen from Ecuador regularly travel to the area in search of dorado, shark, and tuna.

    Scientists and fishermen regularly monitor the number and health of the fish and crustacean populations. Scientists with the MPA train local residents in sustainable fishing practices.

    Recreational Use

    More than 100,000 people visit the Galapagos every year. Tourists are attracted to the clear water and the opportunity to interact with the archipelago’s unique wildlife.

    Some areas of the reserve allow sport fishing and other activities, such as snorkeling, scuba diving, boating, and whale watching. Divers are drawn by the large populations of rays, hammerhead sharks, and whale sharks.

    In areas that allow recreational activities, removal of plants, animals, remains, or other natural objects is prohibited.

    To ensure that tourists observe regulations, the reserve uses satellite-based geographic information system (GIS) technology to monitor activities in its waters.

    Case Study: Galápagos Marine Reserve
    Fish like these thrive in the protected zones of the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

    Galapagos in Danger
    UNESCO placed the Galapagos Marine Reserve on its list of "World Heritage in Danger." These 31 World Heritage Sites are in danger of losing their unique characteristics. The Galapagos Islands are threatened by growing tourism, invasive species, illegal fishing, and undocumented immigration leading to a human population the islands and marine area cannot support.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    agriculture Noun

    the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).

    Encyclopedic Entry: agriculture
    albatross Noun

    type of very large seabird.

    algae Plural Noun

    (singular: alga) diverse group of aquatic organisms, the largest of which are seaweeds.

    applied research Noun

    scientific knowledge focused on a commercial or practical purpose.

    aquatic Adjective

    having to do with water.

    archipelago Noun

    a group of closely scattered islands in a large body of water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: archipelago
    biodiversity Noun

    all the different kinds of living organisms within a given area.

    Encyclopedic Entry: biodiversity
    biologist Noun

    scientist who studies living organisms.

    buoy Noun

    floating object anchored to the bottom of a body of water. Buoys are often equipped with signals.

    Charles Darwin Noun

    (1809-1882) British naturalist.

    coast Noun

    edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: coast
    cormorant Noun

    type of seabird.

    crustacean Noun

    type of animal (an arthropod) with a hard shell and segmented body that usually lives in the water.

    current Noun

    steady, predictable flow of fluid within a larger body of that fluid.

    Encyclopedic Entry: current
    dorado Noun

    popular food and game fish. Also called mahi mahi.

    ecosystem Noun

    community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem
    Equator Noun

    imaginary line around the Earth, another planet, or star running east-west, 0 degrees latitude.

    Encyclopedic Entry: equator
    extensive Adjective

    very large.

    finch Noun

    small, common bird.

    fish aggregation device (FAD) Noun

    large object, such as a buoy, used to attract fish.

    fishery Noun

    industry or occupation of harvesting fish, either in the wild or through aquaculture.

    food chain Noun

    group of organisms linked in order of the food they eat, from producers to consumers, and from prey, predators, scavengers, and decomposers.

    Encyclopedic Entry: food chain
    fossil Noun

    remnant, impression, or trace of an ancient organism.

    Encyclopedic Entry: fossil
    geographic information system (GIS) Noun

    any system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on the Earth's surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: GIS (geographic information system)
    habitat Noun

    environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: habitat
    lagoon Noun

    shallow body of water that may have an opening to a larger body of water, but is also protected from it by a sandbar or coral reef.

    Encyclopedic Entry: lagoon
    mangrove swamp Noun

    coastal wetland dominated by mangrove trees, which have roots that can survive in salty water.

    marine iguana Noun

    lizard native to the Galapagos Islands.

    marine protected area (MPA) Noun

    area of the ocean where a government has placed limits on human activity.

    marine reserve Noun

    part of the ocean where no fishing, hunting, drilling, or other development is allowed.

    Encyclopedic Entry: marine reserve
    military base Noun

    facility owned and operated by a branch of the military.

    monitor Verb

    to observe and record behavior or data.

    natural selection Noun

    process by which organisms that are better -adapted to their environments produce more offspring to transmit their genetic characteristics.

    nautical mile Noun

    unit of distance for sea or air travel, equal to 1,852 meters (6,076 feet).

    nutrient Noun

    substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.

    Encyclopedic Entry: nutrient
    overfish Verb

    to harvest aquatic life to the point where species become rare in the area.

    poach Verb

    to hunt, trap, or fish illegally.

    pollution Noun

    introduction of harmful materials into the environment.

    Encyclopedic Entry: pollution
    prohibit Verb

    to disallow or prevent.

    ray Noun

    flat-bodied fish with fins that appear to flap like wings.

    recreational Adjective

    having to do with activities done for enjoyment.

    reef Noun

    a ridge of rocks, coral, or sand rising from the ocean floor all the way to or near the ocean's surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: reef
    runoff Noun

    overflow of fluid from a farm or industrial factory.

    Encyclopedic Entry: runoff
    scuba noun, adjective

    (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) portable device for breathing underwater.

    sea cucumber Noun

    marine animal related to the starfish.

    seamount Noun

    underwater mountain.

    seaweed Noun

    marine algae. Seaweed can be composed of brown, green, or red algae, as well as "blue-green algae," which is actually bacteria.

    sport fishing Noun

    catching fish for competition or recreation.

    sustainable Adjective

    able to be continued at the same rate for a long period of time.

    sustainable development Noun

    human construction, growth, and consumption that can be maintained with minimal damage to the natural environment.

    tourism Noun

    the industry (including food, hotels, and entertainment) of traveling for pleasure.

    UNESCO Noun

    the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

    Encyclopedic Entry: UNESCO
    urban Adjective

    having to do with city life.

    wetland Noun

    area of land covered by shallow water or saturated by water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: wetland
    World Heritage Site Noun

    location recognized by the United Nations as important to the cultural or natural heritage of humanity.