Galapagos Safeguards: International conservation efforts continue on the Galapagos Islands after the oil spill earlier this year
That is how English naturalist Charles Darwin described the Galapagos Islands in his H.M.S. Beagle logbook entry for 8 October 1835. Darwin spent five weeks on the islands observing endemic species such as tortoises, fish and iguanas. The unusual fauna on the Galapagos inspired him to ponder revolutionary theories on natural selection, which he presented in his great work, On the Origin of Species from Natural Selection (1859).
Although over 150 years have passed since Darwin sailed to the Galapagos, the islands, located in the Pacific Ocean 1,000 kilometers west of Ecuador on the equator, remain one of the most unique natural habitats on Earth. In 1959 the Ecuador government established the Galapagos National Park, and in the same year the Charles Darwin Foundation, an international NGO, founded the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) to conduct scientific research on the archipelago. In 1978 UNESCO added the islands to its World Heritage List. The Ecuador government, international communities and NGOs have thus long been dedicated to conservation of the fragile environment and biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands.
On January 16 this year, however, the tanker Jessica ran aground on the sandbank by San Cristobal Island, one of the archipelago's five major islands, spilling 700 kiloliters of fuel into the water and threatening the islands' wildlife and the livelihood of fishermen. Soon after the accident, the Ecuador government called for international assistance to protect the environment. National agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard and international environmental groups from all over the world came to the islands to join clean-up operations with the Ecuadorian Navy and local fishermen.
At the request of the Ecuador government, JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) dispatched research missions in February and April to survey the damage caused by the oil spill. The members included a biologist, veterinarian and zoologist.
Maeda Hideo, a member of JICA's Secretariat of Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers, visited the Galapagos as a member of the first mission in mid-February.
"The clean-up operation was almost over when I arrived and the damage did not look too serious. However, the damage must also be judged in the mid and long term, and these effects remain unknown," Maeda says.
Fortunately, the coastal wildlife of the Galapagos escaped serious immediate damage because of the favorable tide and winds, evaporation of the oil, and swift clean-up efforts.
In cooperation with the Galapagos National Park Service (GNPS) under Ecuador's Ministry of Environmental Affairs and with the CDRS, JICA's missions examined appropriate measures to prevent environmental disasters and to contribute to long-term natural conservation.
One of long-term threats of an oil spill is that the fuel will sink to the ocean floor, destroying marine organisms such as algae and sea urchins that are vital to the marine ecosystem. The ecological monitoring of sites and species is therefore likely to continue for several years. JICA plans to support the CDRS and GNPS in monitoring the ecosystem to confirm the intensity and distribution of damage from the oil spill.
The Jessica accident rightly attracted the world's attention as a threat to the ecosystem of the Galapagos, but the islands' wildlife has been faced with an array of other problems for some time. One of the most serious threats is the introduction of non-native species, which enter the islands either voluntarily or involuntarily aboard cargo ships. Invasive plants, insects and animals have endangered helpless native species including the giant tortoise, land iguana and opuntia (cactus).
"In Santa Maria Island, I saw some feral goats, which were originally brought to the island for food. These goats' feeding habits have had a great impact on the ecosystem," says Maeda.
To protect native species, the CDRS and GNPS are working to develop methods of control and removal of invasive animals. JICA is examining the possibility of cooperating with the two organizations to conduct scientific investigations and establish an effective quarantine system.
The Galapagos has 19,000 residents and attracts 60,000 tourists a year. With the inflow of people into the Galapagos, the archipelago is confronted with problems not only of invasive species, but also of waste and overfishing. For harmonious coexistence between people and the unique flora and fauna of the Galapagos, environmental education for residents and tourists is vital. Improved awareness of the issues and the cooperation of local people are indispensable, while improvement of people's living conditions, such as the building of treatment plants for waste, is also required. "We will focus not only on nature, but also on people," says Takano Takeshi, director of JICA's South American Division. "Stabilizing residents' and visitors' lives on the islands will lead to improved conservation of the environment."
In July, JICA held a workshop for local residents such as teachers, fishermen and farmers to find out their needs. JICA plans to support them to recognize the importance of preserving the balance within the environment and to create a sustainable way of living in the Galapagos. JICA hopes to encourage people to participate in the process of conservation.
"It will take time, but we have to do it," says Takano. "The television lights and the world's attention have shifted from the Galapagos, but continuous assistance is still needed for the conservation of the islands."
BY SAWAJI Osamu, LOOK JAPAN
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