GALÁPAGOS CONSERVATION CHALLENGES AND COMBATIVE EFFORTS
THE PROBLEM WITH ALIENS
Aliens have attacked the Galápagos… Alien species that is. Introduced species are the greatest threat to the Galápagos’ endemic animals. From the time of the archipelago’s discovery in 1535, alien species have been brought over to the island. Even before domestic animals were brought over by settlers throughout the 1800s, mice and black rats stowed away on ships and found new homes on the islands.
Due to the Galápagos’ isolated nature, the endemic animals had not formed natural defenses against the incoming predators or ecosystem competitors. Over time, rats have devastated the hatchlings of Galápagos giant tortoises on Pinzón Island, leaving only the older generation. Feral pigs munched on Galápagos green turtle eggs throughout Santiago Island, while feral dogs lunched on land iguana colonies throughout Santa Cruise. Goats have wiped out large amounts of endemic plants throughout the archipelago.
Despite the ecological trauma introduced species have caused to the Galápagos, about 95% of the Galápagos’ native species survive today.
Exotic sources also threaten the Galápagos’ marine environment. Though pollution hasn’t been a significant issue, increased traffic—both trans-oceanic and inter-island—increases the potential for introducing invasive species. The long-term effects of these movements are yet unknown, and it’s a source of continued study. Further, rigorous precautions are maintained to avoid the introduction of further alien species.
Galápagos Conservation Efforts
The Ecuadorian government has made consistent efforts to remove or manage invasive species. In 1959, 97% of the Galápagos Islands was deemed a national park, and the year also marks the inauguration of the Charles Darwin Foundation. Though early efforts focused on expunging goats inhabiting smaller islands, the increased tourism and increasing resident population by the 1980s reinforced the need to stop the introduction of new invasive species as well.
The job of prevention has gone to the Galápagos Inspection and Quarantine System (also known as SICGAL) since 1999. SICGAL monitors ports of entry as well as the islands’ agricultural zones to prevent the introduction or foreign organisms and species.
Over time, incredible steps toward conservation have been made, and Project Isabela remains one of the best examples. This project entailed the eradication of feral donkeys and goats from nothern Isabela as well as pigs, donkeys, and goats from Santiago and goats from Pinta. Marchena also saw the loss of its fire ant populations, Baltra cat populations were eliminated, and pigeons were removed from Santa Cruz, Isabela, and San Cristóbal.
Up next on the conservation list is the eradication of feral cattle, goats, burros, and pigs from the Galápagos as well as rodents. Further, the freshwater tilapia populations in San Cristóbal’s El Junco Lake are looking to be removed, and institutions are looking into launching a program to humanely sterilize domestic dogs and cats on the inhabited islands.
Even the bugs are considered a potential conservation threat in the Galápagos. Studies are currently being conducted to look into biological controls to mitigate the effects of mosquitoes, wasps, and ants who might carry viruses. Similarly, these biological controls extend to parasitic flies that are a threat to their avian hosts.
New Galápagos Marine Sanctuary
While about 97% of the archipelago’s landmass is protected as a national park, the ocean surrounding the islands were largely neglected until 1998 with the creation of the Galápagos Marine Reserve. The Marine Reserve is the second largest in the world, and if you need a mental image, it takes up about half of Ecuador’s total land area. Though this seems impressive, less than 30% of the marine environment was protected until recently.
In March 2016, Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, announced the formation of a new marine sanctuary that extends the existing Galápagos Marine Reserve around the Wolf and Darwin islands as well as smaller no-take zones throughout the archipelago. The largest portion of the new sanctuary incorporates 15,000 square miles—taking up a substantial percentage of the 50,000 square miles protected by the Galápagos Marine Reserve. With the new sanctuary, about one third of the Galápagos waters are protected by the government.
The marine sanctuary was created in an effort to protect the world’s greatest biomass of reef fish and sharks as well as the ecosystem which supports them. With shark populations increasingly depleted throughout much of the world, the Galápagos shark population becomes both unique in consequential.
In order to protect this ecologically significant zone, the new marine sanctuary includes a no-take designation to prevent fishing as well as increased surveillance in order to defense against further illegal poaching by pirate fishers, who take shark fins to sell on the Asian black market and target groupers and sea cucumbers as well.