Commentary by Captain Paul Watson
Founder and President of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Humans may not like to admit it, but we are exotics in fragile island ecosystems.

An "exotic" is a species that has been introduced into an eco-system causing competition with and destruction of native species of both plant and animals.

In the Galapagos exotics range from introduced insects to cats, dogs, goats, chickens, cows, horses, rats and yes- even people.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, along with CIMEI, Animal Balance and S.P.E.C.I.E.E.S., has been addressing the issue of exotic removal especially with dogs and cats that threaten native birds, lava lizards and iguanas.

The most destructive exotic animal of them all is Homo sapiens sapiens - that is ourselves.

It is of course a little more difficult to remove humans than dogs, cats and goats, although so far no exotic species removal project in these islands has been completely successful.

There are laws against bringing dogs and cats to the islands, but people still bring them and breed them and the numbers increase each year.

Human numbers have been increasing each year also. Human population figures in the Galapagos are up from around 5,000 in the mid-eighties to over 35,000 today. Those are just the residents. Tourism numbers have increased from under 50,000 a year to nearly 200,000.

However, the Ecuadorian government is taking some action. The Special Law for the Galapagos does not allow for unrestricted migration of Ecuadorians from the mainland to the Galapagos. To live in the Galapagos you must be a legal resident of the Galapagos, although it is an Ecuadorian province.

Over the last year, about 1,000 illegal migrants have been deported back to the mainland. Another 2,000 have been given a year to leave. An estimated 15,000 illegal residents remain.

These are people attracted to the islands because of the diminishment of the fisheries on the mainland and by the attraction of jobs in the growing eco-tourist industry in the Galapagos. More tourists mean more tourist services and thus more jobs. More tourists means more local fish need to be caught to feed the demands of tourists patronizing restaurants in the Galapagos or taking excursions on tourist boats. Wages in the Galapagos run 70% higher than on the mainland.

In many ways eco-tourists are literally loving and eating the Galapagos marine reserve to death and causing escalating destruction on the land.

For example, the Mayor of Vilamil on Isabela Island cut down a mangrove grove to build a dock for his eco-tourist hotel and he removed the sand from a local beach along with marine iguana eggs to make cement.
Last year, Ecuador was chastised by the United Nations, scolding that the islands are in serious danger from overpopulation, over-consumption of local resources, mismanaged tourism, and corruption in the Ecuadorian Navy.

Driving the economic boom is insatiable demand by foreign tourists for close-up experiences and photo opportunities with giant tortoises, elephant seals, flamingos, marine iguanas and other species in their native habitat. As a result, scientists warn that, according to the Los Angeles Times, "Habitat is becoming increasingly less pristine."

The 2007 report issued by UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural arm, placed the islands on its "in danger" list, a designation upheld in July 2008.

The rising tide of tourists, residents and suppliers has introduced alien species, including rats, goats, cats, dogs and, more recently, mosquitoes and fire ants, UNESCO's Marc Petry said by telephone from Paris in a quote to the LA Times. Such intrusions, as well as sewage and oil discharged from boats, threaten the islands' plant and animal life, he said.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has maintained an office and a patrol vessel in the Galapagos since December 2000.

The Galapagos is our line in the sand. If we cannot save this profoundly unique ecosystem, this "protected" world heritage site, then we will not be able to save anything on this planet.

Sea Shepherd has assisted in acquiring a canine unit to work with the Ecuadorian police to sniff out smuggled shark fins and has busted dozens of illegal poaching operations over the last eight years, including the seizure of some 45,000 smuggled shark fins and 100,000 sea cucumbers in 2007.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is 100% in support of the policy of removing exotics including illegal undocumented humans from this fragile ecosystem.

The Galapagos belongs first and foremost to its original inhabitants - the turtles, the iguanas, the birds, the sharks and the seals. Their needs must come first!

From the Los Angeles Times, October 8, 2008 by Chris Kraul:

The expulsion of Ecuadorian nationals has sparked a debate about whether the government should be more concerned with imposing a cap on tourism than culling residents.

Scientists at Galapagos National Park want to see a limit on visitor traffic, which in the last decade has grown 13% a year on average. Tourists visiting the park this year are expected to total about 180,000, more than officials say they can keep up with.

"When visitors reached 50,000 a year, we said to ourselves, this really is the limit. We can't handle any more. But now it's triple that figure," said Sixto Naranjo, the park's coordinator and former director.

The government of President Rafael Correa has resisted any move to cap the number of visitors. Environment Minister Marcela Aguinaga said in a September interview that there was no sign that tourism was "oversaturated." Migration controls, resident training and the development of a new "tourism model" are the answers, she said.

"President Correa declared the islands in danger four months before UNESCO and already had taken several measures to confront the problems," Aguinaga said.

The new tourism model, which is being studied for a report due by mid-2009, might try to freeze visitation levels with strategies such as raising the entrance fee for foreigners to $300 or more from $100.

The government has also launched a training program designed to reduce the number of fishermen. Too many are plying the waters for too scarce a resource, especially since overfishing in the 1990s decimated the stock of sea cucumber, a delicacy in Asia. Shark and lobster populations also have been illegally exploited.

The management of Galapagos tourism is a sticky issue for Correa, a self-described green president who briefly taught college economics. Galapagos tourism generates an estimated $200 million a year in revenue, about one-fourth of which ends up in the pockets of local ship captains, cooks, guides and other suppliers living on the islands. The rest goes to airlines and tour packagers on the mainland.

Despite rising prices and global economic downturns, the number of visitors has increased tenfold since 1980, with middle-aged Americans and Europeans making up the fastest-growing market segment. These tourists, in contrast to the shoestring-budget backpackers of two decades ago, are increasingly affluent.

Nearly half the Galapagos visitors this year will be from the U.S., and most will spend $2,000 to $3,000 for a four-to-seven-day boat tour of selected islands, on top of the not-inexpensive airfare. Half the islands' visitors have annual incomes of $50,000 or more and one-third are older than 50, said Fabian Zapata, director of INGALA, the regional planning agency.

Most will emerge as amazed as naturalist Charles Darwin, whose 1835 visit inspired his "The Origin of Species," the tract in which he laid out his theory of evolution.

UNESCO declared the archipelago a World Heritage Site in 1978, the inaugural year for the designation.

Correa's government was the first to strictly enforce laws that require formal "visas" for Ecuadorians to visit the Galapagos. The papers of all arriving at the islands' two airports are checked. Many with limited-stay tourist visas simply remain to look for work.

Checkpoints and patrols have become routine on Santa Cruz Island, home to the port town of Puerto Ayora, at 20,000 residents the Galapagos' largest city and the embarkation point for most tours.

But the undocumented still slip through security and now represent an estimated 20% of the islands' population.

Businesses say they are besieged by undocumented Ecuadorians looking for work.

"I put up a sign to fill a waiter position today and I got five applicants, none of whom had papers," said Hernan Herrera, owner of the popular Cafe Hernan in Puerto Ayora.

"It's a privilege to live here," Herrera said. "But also a responsibility."

http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-galapagos8-2008oct08,0,363527.story

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