This article first appeared in Wildlife News.



























The Galapagos Islands: Paradise Lost?
By Jennifer Reeder, WWF Communications Officer

The Galapagos Islands have traditionally been an equatorial paradise filled with land iguanas, sea lions, birds with electric blue feet, and giant tortoises. The spectacular archipelago, located 900 km off the South American coast and governed by Ecuador, has an array of plants and animals found nowhere else, and is the site where Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution. Ironically, the stunning beauty found in the Galapagos Islands has also brought on several major environmental threats, primarily a tourism-fuelled population growth and commercial resource exploitation.

Currently, the annual population growth rate in the Galapagos Islands is 8.5 percent, in which case the population will double every six to seven years. This obviously puts tremendous pressures on the limited marine and terrestrial resources and increases pollution. Population growth also leads to greater transport of goods and produce to the islands, which raises the frequency of newly introduced species. Insects, snails, dogs and rats are examples of introduced species that have had destructive impacts on native animals such as tortoises and seabirds, to name a few.

Three-quarters of the escalating growth rate in the Galapagos Islands is because of the economic boom brought on by tourism. This loss of isolation has historically led to environmental destruction, such as the 18th century whalers and sealers who killed off most whales, fur seals, and giant tortoises in the Galapagos. Recently, the escalating international demand for marine resources such as shark fins and lobsters has led to uncontrolled and dangerous extraction for these fisheries.

In the 1980s, fishing for lobster was intense until the lobster population collapsed. The international market then shifted to another marine animal, the sea cucumber, which is a culinary delicacy, especially in the Far East. As a result, sea cucumbers now face the threat of eradication in the Galapagos Islands.

In 1992, a Marine Resources Reserve for the Galapagos Islands was approved by the Ecuadorian government, but was not implemented. As a result, from 1992 to 1994, an estimated one million sea cucumbers were harvested each week from the surrounding waters. The high price paid for sea cucumbers to local fishermen, or pepineros, attracted additional fishermen from the mainland of Ecuador, increasing the pressures on the sea cucumber population.

Many pepineros also set up illegal camps within the National Park to dry the sea cucumbers, which led to litter of plastic and other waste, introduction of dogs in places, and the burning of mangrove trees for fuel. A prohibition to protect the sea cucumbers was established last year but was altered to provide for a three-month "trial" fishing season, with a sea cucumber catch quota of 555,000. The prohibition was reinstated after only two months when it was discovered that the quota had been exceeded by 6-10 million.

Recent events could prove devastating for sea cucumbers, which need large populations for reproduction. A group of 30 pepineros responded to the fishing ban on Jan. 3, 1995 by seizing control of the Charles Darwin Research Station and the Galapagos National Park headquarters. Armed with clubs and machetes, the pepineros held hostage the students and researchers there for five days. As a result, the government of Ecuador reversed the prohibition and opened the Galapagos waters for three months of sea cucumber fishing.

This must be challenged both to preserve the remaining sea cucumber population and to prevent other violent acts in the future. Clearly the government of Ecuador needs to receive considerable support from the international community to finally implement the Galapagos Islands Marine Resources Reserve and its management plan. The plan should involve local fishermen by interesting them in sustainable fishing practices for long term economic benefits and for conservation. A quarantine and control program should commence so that introduced animals and plants cannot continue to compete with indigenous wildlife. And rule by force must not become the governing structure.

Otherwise, the Galapagos Islands could become a "paradise lost."