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."