April 19, 2004
Problems in the Galapagos Islands

I hate stories like this.

GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, Ecuador -- Armed with spray guns and tanks of herbicide, 15 Ecuadoreans descended into the crater of an inactive volcano to beat back one of the Galapagos Islands' most voracious foes: the blackberry.

The first blackberry seedlings were introduced by a farmer a decade ago. But now the thorny thickets are spreading from island to island, crowding out native flora by soaking up water, sunlight and soil nutrients.

"This is one of the most aggressive plants," said fumigator Fernando Correa, as he held up the tip of one branch that had nestled into the ground and was already sprouting roots. "It's out of control."

More than 150 years ago, the singular ecosystem of the Galapagos Islands inspired Charles Darwin to conceive his theory of evolution.

Today, however, rising numbers of human settlers and tourists, overzealous fishermen and the introduction of alien species to the archipelago inspire nothing but angst among environmentalists.

Pigs and dogs brought here by humans eat turtle eggs and compete with endemic animals for food. On one island, 200,000 feral goats gobble nearly everything in their path, forcing park officials to organize hunting trips with helicopter-mounted marksmen.

Overfishing in the Galapagos Marine Reserve, a partially protected area covering 51,000 square miles, is reducing the numbers of shark, lobster, grouper and other sea life. In the past three years, two tankers carrying diesel for tourist boats have run aground, spilling thousands of barrels of fuel into the sea.

Because of high birth rates among residents and the arrival of illegal settlers, the islands' human population has shot up from a few thousand in 1990 to more than 25,000 today. Experts say the population will likely double over the next 20 years.

"That's terrifying," said Howard Snell, director of science at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, the largest town on the Galapagos. "More people means less biodiversity."


The islands' extreme isolation meant that, over millions of years, flora and fauna evolved largely on their own. Nearly all of the reptiles, half of the insects and birds, and a third of the plants have adapted to their ecological niches so well that they bear only a faint resemblance to their mainland cousins.

Of the islands' 5,000 plant and animal species, 1,900 are found only on the Galapagos.

The down side to all of this is that many of these species are fragile and will be quickly threatened by nonnative invaders. A new predator can wipe out a population in short order.

Fishermen are now pressuring the government for permission to use long lines, contraptions that send out multiple, hook-filled filaments that stretch across miles of ocean. Long lines are the scourge of ecologists, because they often hook more birds, sea lions and turtles than targeted fish.

To press their demands, fishermen have killed some of the island's famous giant tortoises and kidnapped park workers. In 2000, Ecuadorean special forces had to rescue the Darwin station director after he was chased into a mangrove swamp by irate fishermen, who later ransacked his home and burned park offices.

I want to have sympathy for the fishermen, who are just trying to feed themselves, but they're making it hard for me.

I don't have any good ideas about this. I'm just sad to read about it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 19, 2004 to Around the world | TrackBack

I have a considerable interest in ecology and wildlife biology (and in retrospect I wish I chose that as my college major instead of CS), and in my readings and such, it seems that one of the most common reasons for some species becoming threatened, endangered or extinct is because of the introduction of nonnative species. (Only loss of habitat, at least in the modern era, seems to cause more problems.)

This is how scientists today think the dodo went extinct. At first they speculated that the dodo, being flightless and having no natural enemies for millenia (or more) on the island of Mauritius, was slaughtered indiscriminately by man. But as they looked more at the evidence, this didn't fit -- primarily because most written accounts indicate that the dodo tasted absolutely horrible and there were other food sources (fruits) available on the island.

But as it turns out, today it's believed that some of the animals the humans brought to that island -- to some extent dogs, but mostly pigs -- seemed to have a very hearty appetite for dodo eggs. (Apparently, the eggs didn't taste as terrible as the bird.) No eggs, no next generation, no next generation, goodbye, dodo.

If these things are happening in one of the greatest ecological menagerie/laboratory settings in the world, it would be very sad, indeed -- if it gets that far.

Posted by: Tim on April 19, 2004 1:12 PM

Great. You got Tim started on his new favorite subject. (duck) He keeps reading these journal articles with titles I don't even begin to understand and talks about wanting to go back to school so he can learn how to count rabbits or something.

Seriously, it is quite ironic that the island that inspired Darwin is now pretty much proving some of what he wrote, despite the huge number of people who still refuse to believe he was right.

Posted by: Sue on April 19, 2004 3:21 PM