In 1959, to mark the centenary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species,” the Ecuadorean government declared the Galapagos a National Park. In 1979, UNESCO proclaimed the archipelago a World Heritage Site.
Today, legislation introduced in 1996 restricting new settlement on the Galapagos and a 1998 dispensation allowing the Galapagos to retain $95 of the $100 entrance fee paid by all visitors are helping to preserve the islands’ unique ecology.
However, a number of challenges still face scientists and conservationists working in the archipelago.
Species introduced to the islands by humans pose the greatest threat to the native flora and fauna of the archipelago. Goats, rats and domestic cats gone feral are among the introduced mammals that destroy vegetation and compete with or prey on native species. Of the 13 extinctions that have occurred since the discovery of the Galapagos, alien species and human activity are responsible for 11. Mammals have suffered most — of an original 11 native mammal species, only three remain.
It’s a problem for plants, too. In 2002 the number of introduced plant species was estimated at 600 — outnumbering the 500 endemic species.
Various lines of action have been taken. The main imported threat, goats, have already been eradicated from Espanola Island; eradication began on Santiago in 2002 and on Alcedo this year. The “Isabela Project” has already eliminated more than 33,000 goats from Isabela, the largest island in the archipelago, where evidence of goat devastation of vegetation surprises the visitor. Extermination programs are in place for feral cats on Baltra Island and pigeons on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal islands.
The “El Nino” effect, in which both land and sea temperatures across a swathe of South and North America are up to 10 degrees higher than normal, has a severe impact on the Galapagos environment. Some species are favored — vegetation becomes rampant, benefiting land birds and reptiles — but sea birds and marine species are hard hit.
During the most recent El Nino, 1997-98, the breeding seasons of waved albatrosses, penguins and boobies all failed; 90 percent of sea lion pups born in 1997 died of starvation due to the absence of sardines in Galapagos waters; and widespread poisoning decimated marine iguanas after they resorted to eating toxic algae when their preferred algae species all but vanished.
A natural phenomenon, El Nino is itself part of the Galapagos environment. However, there are fears that its effects exacerbate the negative impact of introduced species on endemic populations. Rats and mice, for example, thrive in the wet conditions — and when scant penguin breeding resumed in 1998, rats preyed on the penguin eggs and chicks.
A 1996 report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science spoke of “rape-and-pillage” fisheries devastating Galapagos marine species, and the problem is ongoing. Affected species include sharks, threatened by illegal longline fishing, and lobsters and sea cucumbers, which have been drastically overfished.
Measures taken to restrict the sea-cucumber harvest in 1994 led, in 1995, to a takeover by angry fishermen of facilities at the Galapagos National Park Station and the Charles Darwin Research Station. The fishers, an economically vulnerable group, threatened to harm endangered native species and sabotage both tourism and conservation in the islands unless harvesting was resumed.
Since then, relations have improved. Regular meetings are held of stakeholders in the Galapagos ecology, involving scientists, conservationists, local residents and representatives from the fishing and tourism industries. An initial five-year Fishing Calendar was negotiated in March 2002, which provides a framework for the managed exploitation of Galapagos fish stocks.
Last year the CDRS extended its fisheries monitoring program, which is currently collecting data on the location and size of catches, as well as conducting scientific observations. The future is by no means assured, however. The latest findings show that the sea cucumber population has failed to recover following the 2002 harvest.
One challenge facing conservationists has been to win the hearts and minds of the local residents. As the AAAS report stated in 1996, many residents of Galapagos are relative newcomers — in the principal settlements, as much as 73 percent of the population has arrived since 1986. It was feared that these people had no vested interest in the long-term welfare of the islands.
When the Charles Darwin Foundation (which runs the CDRS) surveyed local attitudes in 1997, this fear appeared to be borne out — the respondents reported indifference to the crucial problem of introduced species. After educational initiatives, however, in 2002 some 89.2 percent replied that they considered action on introduced species to be important or very important.
Acknowledging that economic vulnerability can lead to conflicts of interest between residents and conservationists, the CDF has worked with the women of the fisheries sector. It has provided technical assistance for the establishment of four micro-industries (marmalade production, handcrafts, dressmaking and fishery products), with the aim of reducing local families’ economic reliance on fishing.
The CDRS has also distributed classroom material to the islands’ schools, advised teachers, given classes to help adults obtain their high-school qualifications and offered scholarships for university courses. Workshops are held to instruct farmers on sustainable agriculture, to teach fishermen about sea-cucumber sustainability, and to inform boat captains and tourist operators about the Galapagos Marine Reserve.