Environmental Threats Facing the Galapagos Islands
On any given day we estimate that anywhere between 10 and 100 miles of longline are set inside the Galapagos Marine Reserve. A longline is a fishing line usually made of monofilament. In the Galapagos the length of the line generally ranges between 1 and 10 miles. Styrofoam buoys or plastic floats are attached to the lines. Every hundred feet, there is a secondary line attached extending down about 15 to 50 feet. This secondary line is hooked and baited with squid, fish, rays, or in cases we have discovered, with fresh dolphin meat. Albatross can see the baited hooks from the air and when
Sea Shepherd crew with confiscated
longline on board the Farley Mowat,
they dive on the hooks, they are caught and they drown. Other forms of marine wildlife see the bait from the waters below and get hooked when they try to eat the bait. The lines are set adrift from vessels for a period of 12 to 24 hours. Most of these hooks are being used to target sharks, tuna, and marlin. Longlines are the most significant factor in the rapid diminishment of shark populations in the oceans. The sharks targeted are caught mostly for their fins (which account for only 4% of their body weight) and also for their cartilage, liver oil, and teeth. The longline fishermen remove the fins and toss the still living shark back into the sea to die an agonizing death. Unable to swim, they slowly sink towards the bottom where other fish eat them alive. If longlines are not abolished, the oceans will lose most species of sharks within the next decade.
The Galapagos National Park Service (GNPS) is controlling the area but only have a very small fleet at their disposal. Therefore they cannot possibly control and stop the poaching. Besides that the actual penalties are incredibly low making the risk of being caught very acceptable. Sea Shepherd is helping in many ways by donating boats, hiring qualified crew, and by constantly developing new projects aimed to tackle the problem from other angles.
Some of the hotspots for poaching are to the north of the archipelago where mostly Costa Rican longliners fish for sharks; south of the Archipelago exists an extensive illegal shark finning operation and to the east as well as the west where many illegal fishermen from the mainland take their chances on tuna, marlin, and sharks.
These lines will no longer
threaten the Marine Reserve
Most of the longlining takes place at night and by daybreak the non-local poachers normally move outside the 40-mile Park limit to avoid being caught. If they do get caught they often get away with having to pay nothing but a nominal fee. This unfortunately comes from a lack of judicial force in the Galapagos, caused by legislation that needs to be reformed. Sea Shepherd Galapagos is presently working with a strong legal team to address this problem and approach these cases from a criminal standpoint. In general, criminal penalties are more severe than the administrative fees that are presently being charged and will act much more as a deterrent to possible poachers.
Next to longlining there is a large number of commercial purse seiners operating the waters around the Galapagos Marine Reserve. On an alarmingly high number of occasions they enter the National Park claiming to have mechanical or medical emergencies. The law of the sea states that any vessel in distress is given 72 hours to address such problems and this allows the commercial tuna boats to enter the Park unhindered. Some of the vessels have been seen twice in one year, making their emergencies highly suspicious.
Local fishermen also find tuna tracking device belonging to vessels from most South and Central American countries inside the Marine Reserve. Several hundreds of these high-end devices are picked up every year. The sheer number of devices found indicates a high probability that illegal tuna fishing is taking place inside the Marine Reserve.
Ghost lines also are a major threat. These are lines that were somehow set adrift from the vessel which laid them. They become tangled messes and capture many types of marine life who innocently try to swim by or through them.
Other forms of poaching
Sea cucumbers - Their numbers have been decimated but still many of the poachers are active in this trade. To find sea cucumbers, people have to go to remote areas and dive to dangerous depts. Sea cucumbers are being sold to the Asian market and are being used in Chinese medicine. It is also still considered a delicacy in Asia.
Sea horses - Again, Asian demand is calling for these animals to be slaughtered. They are both considered to be an aphrodisiac, whereas dried sea horses also find there way to wildlife collectors. Sea horses are considered endangered and any catch is strictly prohibited.
Sea lion penises - For the sea lion penises often the larger males are selected. Taking the larger, dominant males out of the small populations will risk lowering the quality of the gene pool of such a group. This then results in lowering the chances of survival of such a group, as the offspring will become less strong and more likely to be targeted by predators such as sharks and orcas.
boiled sea cucumber
sea lion penises and testicles
Expanding Human Settlements
The population of Galapagos has roughly doubled in the last 10 years, making it the fastest growing part of Ecuador. Uncontrolled and illegal immigration is the main reason for the growth. Despite significant improvements in the immigration policies and actual deportations of illegal immigrants, Galapagos is still stuck with thousands of unlawful inhabitants. To house the people there is a constant expansion, taking place throughout every populated area.
In 2009, during the 50-year anniversary of the Galapagos National Park, the Park Service traded an area just outside the biggest town, Puerto Ayora, with the city council for an area of farmland of equal size. At first sight this was a good deal as
traffic increasing in Galapagos
the Park area that was given up, from an ecological point of view, is of lesser quality than the farmland. However, the newly-acquired population area is forming a bridge between the existing coastal town and several smaller towns further inland and could serve as a stepping-stone for future expansions. Since Puerto Ayora is already in severe environmental difficulty, adding an extra neighborhood will only push it further into crisis.
The speed in which these constructions take place is so high that any visitor returning to Galapagos after only 5 years will have difficulty recognizing the place. At the present rate of growth Galapagos will have a population of one million people by the year 2058. Obviously this is far more than the islands can sustain as the limits are already reached. Further expansion will continue to lead to increasing habitat destruction and will eventually result in the disappearance of the unique life that drew people here in the first place. Unless better controlled, expanding human settlements will turn the Galapagos into nothing but a group of bare rocks in the Pacific.
Introduced Plants and Animals
Galapagos now has more introduced plants and animals than endemic ones. There are 750 introduced plants and 500 endemic species. Obviously, this has led to an exodus of the unique flora and fauna. The blue-footed boobies and marine iguanas that used to be part of the every day street life have now moved away from the towns. Cats and dogs are not allowed into the islands; only the ones that are already present can stay. Yet every year, there are more new breeds. Popular are the huskies for their blue eyes, despite the fact that it’s a polar dog. Purebred dogs are being smuggled in and sold to breeders who supply to the local human population. The owners discard their old none-purebred dogs like a broken toy. These unsterilized dogs end up roaming the streets, uncontrollably breeding and terrorizing the local bird and iguana populations. Sea Shepherd has been helping Animal Balance to spay and neuter the pets of Galapagos. What was supposed to be a campaign for several years until all pets were sterilized has turned into a permanent need. The uncontrolled smuggling and breeding and the unwillingness of the authorities to act against it has led to an actual incline in numbers. An additional problem is the local culture because it is considered macho to leave your dog unsterilized. Only mandatory sterilization and stricter controls on smuggling will solve this problem, Sea Shepherd is working to accomplish this.
Even though fumigation takes place on all incoming commercial flights, all the cargo ships are still transporting their insect- and rat-infested cargo to the islands without any of such measures. Most of the introduced species are being brought in this way.
Tourism has increased in Galapagos from 7,500 in 1974 to 173,000 in 2008. More tourists, means more people working in tourism, means more inhabitants, means more problems. Some studies have indicated that sustainable tourist numbers for Galapagos are less than 40,000.
One of many tourist cruise
ships in Galapagos
Daily six flights leave the continent with the destination of the Galapagos Islands. Plans are to add another airline, as tickets are increasingly harder to come by. Other plans indicate including air connection to a third island – Isabela.
There is a growing fleet of passenger ships offering cruises. Some of these comply with all the environmental and safety regulations and yet others seem to slip through the inspections with minimal effort. Every year a number of vessels mysteriously sink, burn out, or hit an island and the owners claim the insurance money. Despite the danger to the passengers, it is also a major environmental concern.
Increased transport between the populated islands by fast speedboats is causing higher mortality among sea turtles that are frequently been run over.