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.