Subtidal Ecological Monitoring

Subtidal Ecological Monitoring

Subtidal Marine Ecological Monitoring of the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR)

This project is currently Active

Subtidal Ecological Monitoring is a long-term programme that has been carried out for several decades establishing a baseline of the GMR. It was developed to provide the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) with a complete description of this community and to provide information on the dynamics and magnitude of the fluctuations of this biota through space and time, while incorporating natural and anthropogenic effects such as climate change.

The long-term scale of the Subtidal Ecological Monitoring program in Galapagos, has enabled the recognition of patterns and processes that are of fundamental importance in the coastal-marine ecosystems.

By looking at the subtidal ecological condition would illustrate the current threats and risks to which these ecosystems are most exposed to, and the mechanisms to mitigate/minimize them.

Our Research Team

Inti Keith

Principal Investigator

Inti has worked with the CDRS in different marine projects since 2010, including shark tagging, sea turtle monitoring and ecological monitoring before completing her PhD on Marine Invasive Species...

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William Bensted-Smith has been with the Marine Invasive Species Programme since November of 2019 and principally focuses on the physical oceanographic side it. His work centres on predicting the...

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Rosita Calderón Barrera was born in Galapagos and at the age of 18 left the islands to pursue her university studies. She graduated in Biology from the University of Guayaquil. Her first forays into...

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Wilson Iñiguez


Wilson is a marine biologist who graduated from the Universidad Técnica Particular de Loja (UTPL), who has worked with several projects at the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) over the years. In...

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Franklin Teran

Project Assistant

He has been part of the Marine Invasive Species project since 2017, when he began as an intern of the project and developed his undergraduate thesis on the analysis of food webs and possible...

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Other collaborators:

Stuart Banks: Oceanographer

Project Details

The ocean covers more than 70% of our planet’s surface and it plays a critical role in life on Earth (Denkinger & Vinueza, 2014). Not only does the ocean regulate the world’s weather and is home to a great diversity of life, it also supports human well-being by providing services which are key to our survival and quality of life (Halpern et al., 2012). Unfortunately, marine ecosystems face an increasing number of threats due to human activity. These threats include climate change, overfishing, habitat loss and damage, pollution, ocean acidification and invasive species (Lester et al., 2009).

Governments worldwide have been creating Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the last decades. These are sections of the ocean where governments place limits on human activity (Buglass et al., 2018). Marine reserves are a type of MPA and have become a common strategy for conservation and resource management in the marine environment. MPAs such as the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR) are very important tools not only for the conservation of marine resources, habitat and biodiversity protection, but also for replenishing stocks of commercial species and maintaining areas for education, science and tourism (Game et al., 2008; Denkinger & Vinueza, 2014).

In 1974 the Land Management Plan recommended some level of protection of the marine area around the Galapagos islands, these were the first steps towards marine conservation and management in Galapagos (Piu, 2003). Accordingly, in 1986 a Marine Resources Reserve was established (Kenchington, 1989) and in 1998 the Galapagos Marine Reserve was created, which increased the level and area of protection (DPNG, 2014). Nowadays, the GMR (138,000 km2) is the largest reserve in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP) region and one of the largest marine reserves in the world (Carlton, Keith & Ruiz, 2019).

Protected areas of the Galapagos Islands: The Galapagos National Park (terrestrial area in green) and the Galapagos Marine Reserve (marine area around islands in light blue). Taken from GNPD, 2014.
Protected areas of the Galapagos Islands: The Galapagos National Park (terrestrial area in green) and the Galapagos Marine Reserve (marine area around islands in light blue). Taken from GNPD, 2014.

Furthermore, the rocky subtidal habitats of the GMR are full of emblematic fauna such as sharks, mantas, turtles, corals, penguins, groupers, etc. The Subtidal Ecological Monitoring Programme was developed in order to provide the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) with a complete description of this community and to provide information on the dynamics and magnitude of the fluctuations of this biota through space and time and incorporate natural and anthropogenic effects such as climate change. It is a long-term programme that has been carried out for decades, thus establishing a baseline of the GMR. The Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) has led the Subtidal Ecological Monitoring Programme since 2004, in collaboration with the GNPD and in recent years with Conservation International (CI).

In this context, the main goal of our programme is to assess the biodiversity of the subtidal communities of the GMR, as well as the environmental parameters at different time and spatial scales, in order to generate diagnostic indicators on their status, the effectiveness of management measures and their adaptation to climatic variability.

Diver photographing marine substrate. Photo by: Inti Keith, CDF.
Diver photographing marine substrate. Photo by: Inti Keith, CDF.

Why is long-term monitoring important?

Biodiversity loss is a major concern of our times. Human pressure has pushed approximately a million species to the brink of extinction. Solutions to the biodiversity crisis certainly require multiple groups getting involved, from governments, the scientific community to civil society (IPBES, 2019). However, without consistent and reliable information about the status of biodiversity supporting conservation efforts, little or nothing can be done to combat the biodiversity and extinction crises (DPNG, 2014).

Therefore, long-term data is imperative in order to detect changes, be they cumulative and/or chronic impacts. Understanding such ecological variation as well as trends is important for management strategies (Hewitt & Thrush, 2007). Thus, the Subtidal Ecological Monitoring Programme gives us the opportunity not only to observe, but to react to new changes in ecosystems such as phase changes, depletion of fish populations, invasion of non-native species, decline of species of tourist interest, possible threats posed by El Niño events and climate change. Accordingly, this programme provides a valuable tool to implement management measures in the GMR.

Likewise, our long-term monitoring programme can also allow for assessment on the effectiveness of the GMR as a protected area and provide evidence as well as guidance to improve management by learning from current management outcomes. More broadly, we aim to assess the biological response to environmental and anthropogenic factors through the long-term follow up and research of biodiversity, the composition and functioning of coastal marine systems. This programme was created and maintained in order to provide relevant information for a better understanding and conservation of the GMR.

What do we do?

There are around 380 sites that have been monitored as part of the GMR baseline (Danulat & Edgar, 2002) and in 2004, the annual subtidal monitoring programme run by CDF began. This program is based on the repetition of monitoring 64+ sites around the GMR, covering the different bioregions of the archipelago: south, west, north and the far northern region (between February and June) (Banks et al. 2016). The monitoring takes place in permanent sites, which is highly important as it allows long-term comparison.

The team is made up of a core group of scientific divers (8 - 10 people), this includes CDF staff, Galapagos National Park rangers, volunteers, students and a dive officer in charge of the logistics and safety of scientific diving.

Subtidal Ecological Monitoring expedition team of 2019 in Wolf Island. Photo by Milton Cargua.
Subtidal Ecological Monitoring expedition team of 2019 in Wolf Island. Photo by Milton Cargua.

This methodology focuses primarily on recording the diversity, abundance and size of the species present in three major groups of macrofauna: fish, macroinvertebrates and sessile organisms. Each sample consists of divers moving along a 50m transect parallel to the coast where visual censuses are conducted for the three taxonomic groups, this is done at a depth of 15m and 6m. Simultaneously, observers can record novel or relevant species and sightings.

Inti Keith surveying sessile organisms using a quadrat. Photo by Macarena Parra.
Inti Keith surveying sessile organisms using a quadrat. Photo by Macarena Parra.
Divers monitoring along a transect. Photo by Inti Keith.
Divers monitoring along a transect. Photo by: Inti Keith, CDF.

In addition, photo-quadrats are applied in a reduced selection of fixed plot sites in order to have a record of the same plot year by year. We also perform oceanographic profiles using our CTD instrument (conductivity, temperature, depth) and collect plankton using a 335 um network to characterize the specific conditions associated with each sampling. Additional satellite data on temperature and productivity are analyzed together with detailed data collected at oceanographic stations installed at Wolf, Fernandina and at the CDRS's Weather Station in Santa Cruz Island. This, in order to find out climate changes on the surface of the GMR region.

Billy Bensted-Smith picking up the transect. Photo by Emma Ridley.
Billy Bensted-Smith picking up the transect. Photo by: Emma Ridley.

We expect the results of our studies to also contribute to the historical continuity of this long-term data collection in order to inform decisions that ensure the sustainability of the GMR.

Our results

Not only have we established a biodiversity baseline of the GMR, which is the main purpose of our programme, but we have also contributed to many understanding, awareness and management processes of the GMR since 1975. We carried out the first subtidal surveys, which served as valuable inputs to the declaration of the GMR and its zoning process. Another great contribution for Galapagos and the world is the development of the physical and digital inventory and collections of marine species of the GMR since 1994 (dataZone).

Two preserved specimens from the Marine Invertebrates’ Collection (MCCDRS), one of the Charles Darwin Foundation’s Natural History Collections. CDF Photo Archive.
Preserved specimens from the Marine Invertebrates’ Collection (MCCDRS), one of the Charles Darwin Foundation’s Natural History Collections. CDF Photo Archive.

Since 1999 we have installed and maintained a minimum in situ network with oceanographic instruments, which allows us to use satellite oceanographic information of the GMR.  Also, since 1999 we have trained several local and national students on techniques for marine ecosystems research, conservation for the GMR and scientific diving. We believe this aspect is highly important in order to contribute to capacity building, particularly for the local community.

We carried out an impact assessment of the Jessica cargo ship oil spill, which happened in 2001. In 2002 we contributed to the characterization of little-used sites as alternatives for recreational diving. We collaborated in the Zoning Commission of the Participatory Management Board for the mapping and physical coastal signaling in the GMR, as well as in the seasonal oceanographic characterization using satellite information. Since 2002 until recent times, we have participated in the GNPD actualization courses for more than 600 Galapagos naturalist guides and GMR dive guides.

Since our programme officially started in 2004, we have annually monitored more than 64 diagnostic sites according to the agreement with the Participatory Management Board of the GMR. These monitoring data have provided substantial information on the distributions of the subtidal communities of these sites and each year we intend to extend this coverage. Thanks to this biodiversity baseline or inventory, we have been able to establish ecosystem and species conservation priorities, which is key for the development of effective management. 

Inti Keith en la pared vertical de Punta Vicente Roca – Monitoreo de sesiles  Foto: Emma Ridley.
Inti Keith at Punta Vicente Roca vertical wall diving. Photo by: Emma Ridley.

In 2006 we carried out a pilot monitoring of soft bottoms for the Zero Anchors Project that sought to promote the practice of ecological tourism in Galapagos, reducing the impact of vessels on the marine substrate. During the same year, we were part of a comparative study between 6 Marine Protected Areas of the Eastern Tropical Pacific, which was important due to the connectivity between protected areas within this region. Later, we were part of the characterization of deep habitats of the GMR and rediscovery of Eisenia galapagensis, a deep algae considered vulnerable according to the IUCN (Miller, Garske-Garcia & Edgar, 2015). Likewise, thanks to our programme, habitat formers and particularly sensitive species were added to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2007.

Wilson Iñiguez laying the transect down  Photo by Jesús Rosas.
Wilson Iñiguez laying the transect down Photo by Jesús Rosas.

Between 2009 and 2010, we carried out studies on the vulnerability of the GMR to climate change, ocean circulation models for the region and Galapagos and a study on open ocean upwelling systems. We also participated in a campaign with stakeholders called “From Science to Action”, intended to socialize changes in the management of the GMR. In 2012, we carried out an impact assessment after the Japan earthquake of 2011 that caused a tsunami in Galapagos.  On the same year, we started creating a baseline and detecting marine invasive species present in the GMR in collaboration with the Marine Invasive Species Programme, also led by the CDF. We continue to work on this until today, with our annual monitoring.

In 2016 we published the Subtidal Monitoring Manual, which describes the methods used to conduct the Subtidal Ecological Monitoring, developed by the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDF) for more than 20 years  (Banks et al., 2016).

Cover page of the Subtidal Monitoring Manual. Taken from Banks et al., 2016.
Cover page of the Subtidal Monitoring Manual. Taken from Banks et al., 2016.

Furthermore, we have recently updated the Subtidal Ecological Monitoring database and will keep doing so periodically. We are committed to keep these valuable data as accurate and up to date as possible, so that it can serve as a key input for a variety of analyses that allow a better understanding and thus better management of the GMR. Since our programme started in 2004, the visual monitoring methods that we use have been improved and applied to comparable monitoring events within other reserves in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Also, training personnel of the Galapagos National Park Directorate has always been an important part of our mission.

Outreach and education

We are currently working on making our long-term data available to the wider public through a virtual platform. This will be presented on a variety of forms, from ecological indexes to interactive visual analyses. We consider this an important aspect of our work as researchers, because communicating science provides a stronger understanding of current research and its relevance to society. This in turn, builds support from the local community and empowers them to protect their home, therefore increasing compliance of conservation law. We want to contribute to decision-making towards the sustainability of the GMR but at the same time to raise awareness in our community, so that we can all move forward hand in hand on our way to a more sustainable planet.

Keywords: Ecological monitoring, Galapagos Marine Reserve, management, sessiles, macroinvertebrates, fish, climate change, long-term

Bibliographical References

  • Banks S, Acuña D, Calderón R, Delgado J, Edgar G, Garske-García L, Keith I, Kuhn A, Pépolas R, Ruiz D, Suarez J, Tirado-Sánchez N, Vera M, Vinueza L, Wakefield E. 2016. Manual de Monitoreo Submareal. Quito, Ecuador: Conservación Internacional Ecuador y Fundación Charles Darwin.
  • Buglass S, Reyes H, Ramirez-González J, Eddy TD, Salinas-de-León P, Marin J. 2018. Evaluating the effectiveness of coastal no-take zones of the Galapagos Marine Reserve for the red spiny lobster, Panulirus penicillatus. Marine Policy 88:204–212. DOI: 10.1016/j.marpol.2017.11.028.
  • Carlton JT, Keith I, Ruiz GM. 2019. Assessing marine bioinvasions in the Galápagos Islands : implications for conservation biology and marine protected areas. Aquatic Invasions 14:1–20.
  • Danulat E, Edgar G. 2002. Reserva Marina de Galápagos línea base de la biodiversidad. Santa Cruz, Galápagos, Ecuador: Fundación Charles Darwin/Servicio Parque Nacional Galápagos.
  • Denkinger J, Vinueza L (eds.). 2014. The Galapagos Marine Reserve: a Dynamic Social-Ecological System. Springer, New York, NY. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-02769-2.
  • DPNG. 2014. Plan de manejo de las áreas protegidas de Galápagos para el buen vivir. Puerto Ayora, Galápagos, Ecuador: Imprenta Mariscal. DOI: 10.1590/S0004-282X2003000500014.
  • Game ET, Watts ME, Wooldridge S, Possingham HP. 2008. Planning for persistence in marine reserves: A question of catastrophic importance. Ecological Applications 18:670–680. DOI: 10.1890/07-1027.1.
  • Halpern BS, Longo C, Hardy D, McLeod KL, Samhouri JF, Katona SK, Kleisner K, Lester SE, Oleary J, Ranelletti M, Rosenberg AA, Scarborough C, Selig ER, Best BD, Brumbaugh DR, Chapin FS, Crowder LB, Daly KL, Doney SC, Elfes C, Fogarty MJ, Gaines SD, Jacobsen KI, Karrer LB, Leslie HM, Neeley E, Pauly D, Polasky S, Ris B, St Martin K, Stone GS, Rashid Sumaila U, Zeller D. 2012. An index to assess the health and benefits of the global ocean. Nature 488:615–620. DOI: 10.1038/nature11397.
  • Hewitt JE, Thrush SF. 2007. Effective long-term ecological monitoring using spatially and temporally nested sampling. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 133:295–307. DOI: 10.1007/s10661-006-9584-z.
  • IPBES. 2019. Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services. Bonn, Germany: IPBES secretariat.
  • Kenchington RA. 1989. Planning for the Galapagos Marine Resources Reserve. Ocean & Shoreline Management 12:47–59.
  • Lester SE, Halpern BS, Grorud-Colvert K, Lubchenco J, Ruttenberg BI, Gaines SD, Airamé S, Warner RR. 2009. Biological effects within no-take marine reserves: A global synthesis. Marine Ecology Progress Series 384:33–46. DOI: 10.3354/meps08029.
  • Miller KA, Garske-Garcia L, Edgar GJ. 2015. Eisenia galapagensis , Galápagos Kelp. 8235.
  • Piu M. 2003. La Reserva Marina de Galápagos. Santa Cruz, Galápagos: Dirección del Parque Nacional Galápagos.
  • Tapia PI, Negoita L, Gibbs JP, Jaramillo P. 2019. Effectiveness of water-saving technologies during early stages of restoration of endemic Opuntia cacti in the Galápagos Islands , Ecuador. Peer J 7:1–19. DOI: 10.7717/peerj.8156.

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