It’s vital to the sea life — including sea turtles, whale sharks and hammerhead sharks — that moves back and forth between the islands, looking for a place to nest or foraging for food.
But the route can be dangerous. Unlike the marine reserves at each end, the swimway is open to fishing vessels. Data shows that populations of migratory species, many of which are already endangered, are declining.
Schools of hammerhead sharks migrate along the swimway. (Courtesy Alex Hearn)
This would extend fishing restrictions beyond the current 22-kilometer radius around Cocos Island and the 74-kilometer radius around the Galapagos islands, creating a narrow protected channel between the two that follows a chain of seamounts, underwater mountains that rise from the sea floor.
A game of tag
For more than a decade, MigraMar’s network of scientists have been trying to prove the importance of the swimway by documenting the species that use it. They have placed satellite and ultrasonic tags on almost 400 marine organisms to track their migratory routes.
“The impact of tiger sharks is felt all the way down the food chain,” he tells CNN. “Having a healthy ecosystem where tiger sharks survive is important.”
The most common threat to these migratory species is fishing. They can be accidentally caught by fishing vessels, entangle themselves in nets, or in the case of sharks, are illegally hunted for their meat and fins.
Compared to other threats they face, such as climate change, fishing is easier for us to control, says Steiner.
Coastal countries can restrict activities in their territorial waters, he explains, and the Cocos-Galapagos swimway falls under the jurisdiction of both Ecuador and Costa Rica. “A couple of signatures on a piece of paper can start the process to protect this vitally important ecological area,” he says.
Carlos Chacón, coordinator of Pacífico, says that finding “common ground” with the fishing sector will be crucial in ratifying the swimway as a marine protected area (MPA). The proposal has already been met with resistance from the fishing industry in both countries, he says, who claim it would have a negative impact on business.
However, Chacón believes that in the long term marine protected areas will have a positive impact on fishing. “MPAs become nurseries,” he says, where fish grow and reproduce, causing overall stocks to increase and more fish to become available outside the protected area.
It could also have economic benefits in other sectors. Cocos and the Galapagos attract visitors thanks to their rich biodiversity and preserving iconic sea life could protect the tourism sector.
Time is short
Ecuador and Costa Rica are currently considering plans to protect the swimway, with MigraMar’s data being used to inform their decisions.
Closing off the swimway to fishing fleets could help protect endangered hammerhead sharks. (Courtesy Cesar Peñaherrera)
Costa Rica is currently “implementing a strategy to increase conservation, especially by creating and strengthening marine protected areas,” Haydée Rodríguez Romero, the government’s vice minister for water and the ocean, tells CNN. This will involve increasing conservation around Cocos Island, she says, adding that “we acknowledge the importance of protecting the swimways.”
“Momentum is building, and the science is clear,” says Steiner. “We’re hopeful that action will be taken in the near future.” But he warns that with some species under threat of extinction, governments need to act fast.
“We’ve taken baby steps,” he says, “but these endangered species don’t have time for that.”