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NOAA Sanctuary Program Lends a
Hand to the Galapagos

by Walter Bonora
National Marine Sanctuaries

In July 2006, experts from the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program (NMSP) traveled to one of the world's last great marine conservation areas - the Galapagos Islands. Their job: to help staff from the Galapagos National Park and Marine Reserve install mooring buoys in tourist sites to alleviate damage caused by vessel anchoring.

Florida Keys sanctuary staff trainer holds buoy anchor eye to estimate drilling depth required, while GNP trainee gets ready to begin drilling into volcanic substrate with underwater hammer drill. (Photo:Amy Massey)

Acting on a request from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)/Ecuador and the Galapagos park and reserve, the NMSP trained Ecuadoran locals on how to place the buoys and leave them with the skills to continue installing them throughout the Galapagos Islands.

"NOAA recognizes the connectivity of the world's oceans and the importance of working internationally to sustain and conserve ocean resources," according to Brady Phillips of the sanctuary program, who coordinated the mooring buoy installation project. "And in supporting NOAA's mission, the National Marine Sanctuary Program believes our own experience in working with local communities and stakeholders to resolve complex resource management issues can be shared and tailored to fit specific needs in the Galapagos."

GNP trainees receive topside instruction from sanctuary staff on the operation and maintenance of the hydraulic power unit that drives the underwater hydraulic tools used for installing the anchor mooring system. (Photo: John Halas/FKNMS)
The islands are home to some of the world's most unique and rare species. The marine iguana, giant tortoise, flightless cormorant, and the only penguin species inhabiting tropical waters are examples of animals found nowhere else.

Additionally, the archipelago's rich waters are home to over 300 species of fish, the green pacific sea turtle that lay their eggs on the islands from December to June, and numerous sea lions and dolphins. But like all sensitive marine ecosystems, the Galapagos can fall prey to human disturbances.

Installing mooring buoys is a move in the right direction to protect the region's seafloor from anchoring which can disturb, and in many cases, destroy key invertebrate communities and soft coral that form a necessary component of the islands marine environment.

Galapagos National Park trainee applies two-part epoxy cement to drilled hole in volcanic substrate prior to inserting and securing the mooring buoy anchor eye into the bottom. (Photo: Amy Massey)
The key in this effort-the first of its kind for the Galapagos Islands-is the embedment anchor mooring buoy system, developed by John Halas, manager of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary upper region office.

"Conventional mooring buoys use heavy cement blocks situated on the sea floor with chain and a floating buoy," says Halas. "The block and chain are subject to heavy drag causing damage to corals. Our buoys, first used in Florida's sanctuary waters in1981, involves drilling a hole into hard limestone or dead coral and cementing a stainless steel eye into the core. This system is firm and drag-free. From the eye, a line is floated to the surface to the buoy."

Installed mooring buoy and line to be attached to a vessel. (Photo: John Halas/FKNMS)
Rocio Cedeno of USAID/Ecuador notes, "Placing the buoys in the Galapagos Marine Reserve tourist sites was a real need. Tourist boats anchoring in our waters were damaging the seafloor. Visitors and the diving guides were often requesting a useful mooring system."

A year before the buoy trip, NMSP staff visited the islands and began a partnership to look at ways to strengthen the islands' ability to address ecosystem management challenges, and help the Galapagos meet their long-term goals and objectives for the marine reserve.

The NMSP also has partnerships with Australia, Italy and South Korea to share knowledge about managing protected areas in the ocean. Click here to learn more about the sanctuary program's international activities.

The Galapagos project was funded by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

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