Galapagos: Now It's Time For Clean-Up, Evaluation Of Impacts And Monitoring - And To Think About The Future
The grounded ship, "Jessica", is still firmly lodged on the sandbank by San Cristóbal Island in Galapagos, where she ran aground on 16th January. She has resisted the salvage efforts of the Ecuadorian Navy and of the team of U.S. Coast Guard experts, who fly out today after two weeks of intensive work, in which they were able to pump out a little of the cargo but could not right or refloat the vessel. They have confirmed that almost all the cargo of diesel and bunker fuel have already spilled into the sea - as little as 1,000 gallons remains in the ship. Patches of bunker fuel are still drifting through the archipelago, however, and the Galapagos National Park Service, the Charles Darwin Research Station, tour operators, fishermen and other collaborators are still working flat out to locate and mop up the patches, monitor wildlife populations that may be at risk, and treat affected animals. The complex, erratic currents of Galapagos have carried some patches of bunker fuel to the east coast of Floreana Island, which is 90 kilometers from San Cristóbal where the ship ran aground, and to the southern and south-eastern coasts of Isabela, some 130 km away. This brings the number to five of major islands affected by the spill. Fuel has washed ashore in some places but no serious cases of oiled wildlife have been reported in recent days.
The observations of Park Service and Darwin Station personnel during the past week have reinforced the initial impression that impacts of the spill will be widespread, but on the incomplete evidence so far available, not severe. Most of the spectacular coastal wildlife of Galapagos seems to have escaped significant impacts - only a few dozen animals, mostly pelicans, have had to be treated and helped to recover. Deaths of fish and marine invertebrates have been reported but the extent of this mortality is not yet known. Marine iguanas on Santa Fe have been heavily exposed to the pollutants and we will be studying them closely, to look for any ill effects. There is no evidence that populations of the Galapagos penguin or the lava gull, two of the very rare species about which we are most concerned, have been affected. However, these are early days; systematic evaluation of impacts will take up to three months.
Given the quantity of fuel spilled, the impacts could have been far worse. Galapagos wildlife appears to have had a lucky escape, mainly as a result of the currents and winds, which carried the diesel and bunker fuel away from San Cristóbal Island, where the Jessica ran aground, into deeper, offshore waters. There the bunker fuel tended to disperse, whilst the diesel steadily evaporated in the intense sunshine, before reaching the shores of the other islands. Good luck with the weather was complemented by dedicated, hard work - the Galapagos National Park Service led a determined, community-wide effort to keep the bunker fuel off the beaches and rocky coasts. Nevertheless the Darwin Station will undertake with the Park Service a full evaluation and prolonged monitoring of selected sites and species, in order to confirm the intensity and distribution of impacts and make sure there are no unforeseen medium-term effects.
The ecological monitoring of potentially affected sites and species is likely to continue for 2-3 years. It will cover an array of marine organisms, such as algae and sea urchins, chosen to reflect the healthy functioning of the marine ecosystem, as well as more prominent, vulnerable species, such as the marine iguana, sea lion and lava gull.
Complementary work will be done on improving the regulatory framework to prevent environmental disasters, whether oil spills or some other anthropogenic cause, such as a disease epidemic that threatens endemic wildlife.
Contingency plans will be prepared for future incidents and the trained personnel, facilities, equipment, networks of contacts and financing mechanisms will be put in place, so that Galapagos is well prepared for emergencies.
The total cost of mitigation and clean-up operations, plus the forthcoming evaluation, monitoring and contingency planning, will run into millions of dollars. We are extremely grateful to the many concerned people and institutions - local, national and international - who have responded rapidly with technical assistance, materials and funds. Considerably more funds will be needed, if we are to do a thorough job of the ecological monitoring and preventive measures.
As the ecological and emotional impacts of this spill fade, I urge everyone who cares about Galapagos to remember the array of problems and opportunities facing marine conservation in the archipelago. In the coming weeks and months, the Darwin Station will be focusing not only on the continuing response to the spill but also on issues of great importance for the future of the Galapagos Marine Reserve, such as:
- implementing research and monitoring programs to guide decisions on fisheries, "no-take zones", and conservation of exploited species, such as lobsters and sea cucumbers;
- investigating the factors affecting survival and reproductive success of rare, endemic species, such as the Galapagos penguin;
- assisting the demarcation of fully protected "no-take zones", which were agreed in 2000;
- advising and supporting the Government of Ecuador on measures to curb the rapid expansion of the local fishing fleet, set sustainable seasons and quotas for artisanal fishing in 2001, and analyze the fishermen's request that small-scale long-line fisheries be permitted in the Reserve;
- assisting the Government to finalize the special regulations it has been preparing on tourism, fisheries, environmental control and control of alien species;
- supporting the efforts of the Park Service to enforce the prohibitions of industrial fishing and shark fin fishing.
The Galapagos Marine Reserve is a vast and wonderful protected area that extends over 130,000 square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean. Created just three years ago, it not only has an extraordinary diversity of submarine habitats and species, but also supports the spectacular coastal wildlife, for which the Islands are renowned. The image of the Jessica spewing fuel into this unique environment has dismayed all who value the natural wonders of the world. Relief that the ecological damage has not, apparently, been severe, must be accompanied by renewed determination to ensure that the archipelago be protected in perpetuity. I would like to thank the many people who have offered moral and practical support during this emergency, and I ask all who care about pristine nature to keep supporting conservation of the irreplaceable fauna and flora of Galapagos
Dr Robert Bensted-Smith
Charles Darwin Research Station,
The Galapagos Islands
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