The Current State of the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands are well known for Darwin’s observation of the various types of finches that live there and his subsequent theory of evolution. Less known though is the current predicament that has engulfed the islands. It was by chance that Darwin was able to observe these islands off the coast of South America firsthand during his voyage on the HMS Beagle (Pruitt & Underwood, 2005). These islands, however, offer a unique set of biodiversity found nowhere else in the world. The islands are located 1,000 km off the coast of mainland Ecuador, straddling the equator. (Protected Areas Program, 1997). More than 96% of the native biodiversity remains intact to this day. The location of the islands guarantees the maximum potential for the specialization of species as well as a minimal influence by outside forces. With that in mind, Darwin was able to find specially adapted specimens on these islands that showcased the theory of evolution through the mechanism of natural selection. However, if the current trends in tourism, the introduction of non-native species, and over-fishing continue on the Galapagos Islands, then the delicate land and marine ecosystems could be irreparably damaged.  

From 1949 to the year 2000 the population of the Galapagos Islands increased from a paltry 800 to 17,000, and the population is estimated to soar to 80,000 by 2027. This is a considerable increase in population, especially when considering the fact that 40% of the population of the islands is employed by tourism, which brings in an estimated $100 million dollars a year for the local economy. This amount of tourism is not without consequences. Most of the tourists arrive through cruise liners. Only 90 tourists are allowed on the national park sections of the islands which cover 97% of the landmass (Galapagos Conservation Trust, 2008). When these cruise liners come they bring with them laundry water and sewage waste (Nicholis, 2006). These wastes are sometimes expelled directly into surrounding water in the harbors, which contaminates delicate, marine ecosystems. The passengers bring with them non-native species, such as ants and seeds, and sickness and diseases. One of the major problems with the cruise ships is that they bring their own food, so the boost to the local economy on the islands is minimal. The Ecuadorean government has imposed a limit of twelve 500-passenger cruise ships that can visit the islands a year. Even though tourist are only allowed for one day at a time and only allowed to visit three of the six ‘zones’ on the islands the delicate ecosystem that exists on the islands is at risk to contamination. Another solution being proposed for the islands is to raise the entrance fee from $100 to $500, but it is feared that such an elevation in fees could hurt the tourism market.

One of the most critical threats to the Galapagos Islands is the introduction of non-native species. During the 19th century, pirates brought rats, pigs, and goats to the islands. More recently the fire ant species Wasmannia auropunctata is threatening to kill off the native ant populations. Goats in particular impact endemic species of Scalecia, a local fauna, by overeating. Project Isabela eradicated thousands of goats on many of the islands in the archipelago, bringing the local ecosystem back into balance. The islands of Santiago and Isabela are now goat-free. Also, pigs have reduced the tortoise population on the islands significantly. The island of Pinta actually only has one surviving giant tortoise because of the invasion of non-native pigs. However, in the near future, there is a project underway to airlift 100 tortoises from the neighboring island of Santa Cruz to the island of Pinta. In a related event, in 2003 an airdrop of poison specifically targeting rats was used to eradicate an estimated 200,000 Norwegian rats on the nearby island of Campbell. A similar method is predicted to be used on the Galapagos Islands sometime in the future in order to contain the growing spread of rodents. Furthermore, many species of non-native vegetation have been introduced to the islands. Considering that 8-10% of islands population receive their income through agriculture these competing species could severely impact the economy of the islands. Certain types of non-native elephant grass and blackberries invade terrestrial areas of the island and undermine native grasses that many native animal species depend on for food. In the last ten years, it is estimated that 100-150 new species of plants have been introduced to the islands. It is unknown how this addition of plant species will impact the overall ecosystem on the islands. Additionally, in 1999 there was a governmental agency called the System of Inspection and Quarantine for Galapagos (SICGAL) set up to control biotic invasions such as canine distemper. These diseases come to the islands through non-native species such as ferrets and dogs. The Galapagos Islands are home to many highly adapted species of birds, reptiles, and marine life. These highly adapted species are threatened by the introduction of non-native species coming from visitors. It is imperative that these species of non-native plants and animals are kept to a minimal level in order to maintain the sustainability of the delicate ecosystem of the islands.

A marine reserve encircles the Galapagos Islands for 40 km offshore. This reserve protects 130,000 sq km of marine biodiversity from illegal fishing, poaching, and harvesting. The issue of illegal fishing is particularly harmful to the marine ecosystem surrounding the islands. In 1994 the National Fisheries Development Council lifted the longstanding moratorium on fishing around the Galapagos Islands. The Council labeled this deviation from established precedence as ‘experimental’ fishing, meaning that caps would be set on the quantity of fish, sea cucumbers, and shark fins that could be harvested during a year. This misstep however brought in years of unsustainable large ship fishing that threatens to extinguish many native fish species from the entire oceanic area. Fisherman also illegally collected many other commercially valuable species such as sea urchins and sea horses from the islands. In late 1994 the Council officially ended ‘experimental’ fishing on the island which led to many disputes between officials and fisherman. In 1995 sea-cucumber fisherman took control of the park research station and threatened to harm employees if the moratorium was not dropped. The situation even escalated to the point that a park warden was shot in 1997 while trying to inspect an illegal fishing camp. In a situation relate to non-native species invasion many sea-cucumber harvesters camp on the main islands bringing with them rodents, ants, and other non-indigenous species. Additionally, in the years 2000 and 2001 47 sea-lions were destroyed in an effort by illegal poachers to harvest parts of the animal considered aphrodisiacs in the Far East. All of these illegal activities are motivated by big fishing companies’ interests in cheap fishing. Some of the interest comes from mainland South America but more often the pressure to fish illegally comes from Asiatic fishing companies. As a result, the Park staff has very little say-so in what goes on around the islands nowadays. These laws and codes should be changed to increase fines for illegal fishing and funding should be appropriated to hire additional staff to accommodate the growing industry. Without these changes, many of these marine species could be forced to leave the protected zones and move to other, less fished sections of the South American coast.

The present-day status of the Galapagos Islands looks rather dim. The zoning laws that were set up for tourism do not accommodate the new tourist attractions of jet skiing, diving, sport fishing or helicopter tours. Because of this lack of foresight many cruise ships have found loopholes in the code that allow their passengers to do many of these activities within protected zones. Some progress has been made in eradicating non-native species from the islands, but with the influx of new tourism, these species are sure to continue unchecked. This could eventually lead to a dying out of some species of native plants and animals. Also, islanders do not have the say-so at this time over limits on fishing and harvesting. That authority has been given over to the Merchant Marine, which will inevitably lead to more fishing.

Collectively these circumstances seem disparaging but there is a good point to be made in all of the bad news; namely, that the islands still maintain their natural reserve status. That fact is what keeps the islands from being completely looted of their natural resources. If these trends are not reversed quickly though irreparable damage may be inflicted on the delicate land and marine ecosystems that make up the Galapagos Islands.

References

Nicholis, H. (2006). Trouble in Darwin’s paradise: Can the Galapagos Islands survive the onslaught of mass tourism and the invasion of non-native species?. New Scientist, 8(2). Retrieved January 18, 2008, from Academic Onefile

Galapagos conservation trust: Explore Galapagos. (2008). Retrieved January 18, 2008, from Galapagos Conservation Trust Web site: http://www.gct.org/intro.html

Protected areas programme: Galapagos national park. (1997). Retrieved January 18, 2008, from UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre Web site: http://www.unep-wcmc.org/sites/wh/galapago.html

Pruitt, P.L., Underwood, L.S. (2005). BioInquiry: Making Connections in Biology. Danvers, MA: Wiley.

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