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Galapagos – Canary in the Coal Mine?

Fernando Ortiz grew up on mainland Ecuador and has lived in the Galapagos the past twenty years. His career path has led him from tour guide to dive guide and eventually dive company manager. Along the route he decided that talking to tourists about conservation was not enough, so he made the leap to full-time environmentalist. Today he runs Conservation International’s office in Puerto Ayora. We talk on the town’s main dock, Zodiac’s whipping back and forth behind us overloaded with tourists, bags of cement, cases of water and beer, two-by-fours and cement blocks, frozen chickens and everything else needed to run a community of 40,000 on an island separated from the mainland by six hundred miles.

“I have realized a few things in the last few years regarding how best to preserve the Galapagos, primarily that it doesn’t matter how good your technical arguments or human arguments are, it’s not about that. It’s mostly, and unfortunately, all about economics and politics.

“I try not to be critical to tourism as an economy. In fact, if we analyze it in one way, tourism is probably the best way in which nature can pay in cash for its survival. If I were to go back to the islands as I saw them for the first time, nineteen years ago, I would probably find the same biologic, ecologic and evolutionary processes still happening, the same blue-footed boobies still nesting on the same trails. The same for the sea lions and penguins. Tourism has actually been well controlled, despite its growth. It’s the indirect impacts of tourism that we need to control.

“For that we need to be able to make some hard political decisions which then need to be followed out by everyone. Unfortunately when you have, let’s say a mayor who is looking for a re-election, he may not favor some regulations that sound restrictive for some of his potential voters. While some of our politicians are aware of the fact that natural resources are limited here in the Galapagos, that there is not enough water, not enough land, that we can’t produce much here locally, who understand the importance of conservation, most regard those as things that can be ‘negotiated.’ Nature cannot be negotiated.

“My children are growing up here and there couldn’t be any better place for a child to grow up. It’s fantastic, they are having experiences no other child – certainly no city kid – can have, which is very important. But do I think we’ll have to leave the Galapagos eventually, because it’s changing too fast. There are simply too many people. All of a sudden there are things here that didn’t used to be here, like violence and crime, a result of too many people.

“The frustration is that I think we know how to save and protect the Galapagos, but I don’t think we have the political will to follow through. In a way, I have become a Galapagos expert, working in different trades and that experience allows me to be analytical right now, to see things from different perspectives, and I still think it is possible there is room for optimism. Again, though it sounds cliché, I really do believe we can make a difference otherwise I wouldn’t be working in conservation, I would probably still be working in tourism, making more money while I can, having a great time scuba diving every day.

“But I know that things can be better managed, especially on land. The difficult part is that we are now surrounded by a one-hundred-and-thirty-eight-square-kilometer marine reserve, which is harder to manage. Thanks to illegal fishing and a boom in industrial fishing many of the beautiful fish that make the Galapagos special are at risk. On paper we are able to come up with strategies to protect them. But we have to have strategies that go beyond the limits of the Galapagos, beyond the marine reserve, all the way to the mainland and further.

“Ironically the Galapagos National Park and the Galapagos Marine Reserve are far advanced in terms of having the right tools and the right resources for managing the impacts of people. Many other protected areas in the world look up at us because we are breaking new ground here, things that are then replicated in other protected places. But we also have our failures, which unfortunately are also being replicated.

“Tourism, if well managed – and I emphasize, if well managed – has a chance to become the best opportunity for people to make a living here, without effecting the environment. But we have to keep our eyes on not just what happens to the visitor sites but the rest of the Galapagos. Let’s not be so short term. But if you look at the numbers, the growth in tourism is scary. We’ve had sustained growth for the past twenty years of twelve to fourteen percent a year and don’t see it slowing down.

“We have allowed market pressures to rule tourism in Galapagos. Many of my friends are tour operators and I ask them all the time what if something gets out of control here – species disappear, too much pollution — and tomorrow people start canceling their trips to Galapagos. What would happen then? They have no answers. Neither does the government on mainland Ecuador. Everybody knows we have a so-called golden goose here and that we need to take care of it. I hope as a society, and as institutions, that we can cope with this challenge. I believe there is an important group of well-intentioned people working in the right direction. All we can do is hope for the best.”

Loving the Galapagos to Death

It would be wrong on its face to say that tourism is the biggest problem facing the Galapagos today. Simultaneously, it is accurate to say that the growth in tourism in the one-of-a-kind archipelago is the primary reason the islands are “in danger.” Those are not my words, but UNESCO’s, in 2007 … the same year Ecuador’s new president claimed the islands were at “great risk” and signed a decree making their protection a national priority. You get the sense that just defining the exact problem facing the Galapagos, for both locals and outsiders, is tricky.

With ninety seven percent of the islands off-limits and under national park protection – small, guided tours limited to 60 designated sites – the system that introduces tourists to the nineteen Galapagos islands has long been regarded a model of eco-tourism. But the success of that model is what puts them at such risk today: In 1991 there were 41,000 visitors, this year there will be close to 200,000; during that same period human population has risen from a few thousand to 40,000. Those are a lot of combined footsteps – as well as ship and plane traffic — for such a fragile eco-system (the so-called “Mona Lisa of biodiversity”).

The sudden arrival of so many people from so many parts of the world introduces parasites which threaten both flora and fauna; permanent residents arrive desirous of re-creating their mainland lifestyles, including cars, dogs and cats, and air conditioning; tour operators are pushing to expand their offerings to include sport fishing and skydiving. The Ecuadorian government has tried, with limited success, to limit migration and is considering raising the national park fee paid by every tourist from $100 to $135, an attempt to slow the numbers.

Jack Nelson is one of the Galapagos’ most-veteran tour operators, coming to the islands to live permanently in 1967. Like others like him, in different settings around the world who have watched their own personal paradises become overly popular, he is alarmed. “To a tourist, things look good. You still see a lot of animals, and not many other people,” he says. “But get outside those controlled (national park) parameters, and you’ll find a big mess nobody can figure out what to do about.”

While we were filming in and around the islands we met longtime Galapagos guide Sylvia Vargas on a few occasions. A native Ecuadorian, she’s been coming here for more than twenty years and has lived in Puerto Ayora off and on since first visiting as a teenager. She feels both blessed to be working in such an incredible place and worried that tourism and migration may be taking too big a toll.

“Personally, I think tourism should be capped for the moment. Higher entry fees haven’t worked to slow the growth. One tour operator I work for recently told me that the people who are coming to the Galapagos today are coming with a different idea about the place – they don’t ask as much anymore about wildlife, their first questions are about the comfort of the ship. They want more air-conditioning, more service, nicer cabins, a massage, a more comfortable mattress and expect a lot of chemicals on board to keep things clean and tidy … all of which have a direct impact on the Galapagos. More energy used, more garbage created, more pollution.

“I came first in 1984 when there were two thousand people living in town and two cars. I knew everyone on the street and was offered food by friends every day. The electricity on the island used to shut down at night. Now there are twenty times as many people and two hundred times as many cars. And we have electricity twenty-four hours a day. I miss the peacefulness of back then.

“But I have talked with people who work as guides in other places and they always say that we Galapagos guides are spoiled because we see such incredible wildlife every day. I guess they are right. But for me the most popular sites are too crowded, sometimes there are so many people I feel … embarrassed.

“My biggest worry is that more people living here means more demand for everything. I don’t see people thinking about having a different lifestyle than what they have on the mainland. They will tell you they came to the Galapagos to live in a peaceful place, but they expect to have exactly the same things that they had on the mainland. Why would you have a pet dog or cat here? Why would you have a car if you live in town? Why would you build a new house with air conditioning, when electricity is so hard to create? At Christmas on the mainland we decorate our houses with lots of outdoors lights and now they do the same thing here even though the power comes from a gas generator and the gas comes from far away.”

Over Fishing in the Galapagos

The Charles Darwin Research Center sits atop a long hill climbing up from Puerto Ayora, on the big island of Santa Cruz. Part of the Charles Darwin Foundation established in 1959 – the lone international research and advisory institution dedicated to exclusively studying the Galapagos – the CDRS is both an archive of historical scientific study and site of various laboratories engaged in today’s most cutting-edge research in the islands. Many of the world’s most-expert Galapganian scientists either have worked here or still do and we’ve walked up the hill to visit with one, marine biologist Alex Hearn … who we find with his hands in a tank, coddling one of the darlings of local marine life, the sea cucumber.




Sitting on a second-story deck overlooking the blue ocean that is his backyard we talk about the impacts of over fishing here. Some highlights:

“You know the Galapagos has a history of over-exploitation that goes way back to the whalers of the sixteenth century. Ever since we’ve had successive waves of boom-bust fisheries. The latest being the sea cucumber which started in the early Nineties as a result of the resource collapsing on the continent followed by a sizable migration of fishers who had already successively depleted the sea cucumber along the coast of Ecuador moving to the islands and hammering the resource here. At the time it was unregulated and there was no way of stopping it because there was no Marine Reserve. By the time the Marine Reserve was created a lot of the damage had already been done. Sometimes we forget that the Marine Reserve management system inherited a lobster resource which had already collapsed in the Eighties, and a sea cucumber resource that had already been heavily fished for ten years .…”

“In terms of coastal fishing, the number of local fishermen — who are the only ones legally allowed to fish here — has nearly tripled during the Nineties, from about 400 to over 1,000. Fishing around the coast has increased dramatically and we haven’t been very successful in managing it. In part because it’s a group with a lot of political power as well as the perception of an immediate need. Since 1998 this local management system has failed to take into account the sustainability of both lobster and sea cucumber. The result is that both are suffering, badly ….”

“When you’re at university or when you’re studying a particular species biologically you’re focused on the species. When you’re looking at the fisheries, the actual biology of the species is the least important thing really, your job becomes more about managing people. Getting them, first of all, to trust that our advice is first and foremost because we are scientists and is focused on sustainability. Our motivation is not about eliminating or prohibiting fishermen. There is a big lack of trust here, partly due to the fact that we’re both a science and conservation organization and carry a fair amount of political power as well. As a result we vote on the system as a conservation sector but we also provide the technical advice, which may sometimes seen as a little bit suspect. Some locals, fishermen, will say ‘You’re providing the advice just to justify your position.’ It can get very complex. It’s about building trust and showing them that the long-term impacts of over fishing and are very difficult to prove but that we still need to make changes now ….”

“Working in Galapagos is like a rollercoaster. There are times when it’s immensely frustrating and there are times when it’s just paradise. To tell the truth, for me, as a young scientist coming to Galapagos straight out of university, to be able to develop lines of research, to be able to publish, to be able to take the research from the sea to the government and follow that entire process is something you really don’t get in many other places. On a personal level I am eternally grateful for Galapagos. Besides, Galapagos also gave me a wife and a baby. So what can I say?”

Darwin’s Evolution

While in the Galapagos filming we ran into an American writer living in Puerto Ayora, the big town on the island of Santa Cruz, researching a book about exactly the same subject of our film – the current state of affairs across the archipelago.


Carol Ann Bassett’s book is just out, published by National Geographic, fittingly titled “Galapagos at the Crossroads: Pirates, Biologists, Tourists and Creationists Battle for Darwin’s Cradle of Evolution,” and it’s a fantastic tutorial for anyone curious about the natural and human health of the island state today.

I was particularly curious about her reportage on Darwin’s initial reaction to the islands that will forever be linked with his theory of evolution.

Like other biographers of Darwin – who first visited in 1835 as a curious but inexperienced 26-year-old, born the same day as Abraham Lincoln – she labels his role as evolutionary mystery solver “one of the greatest myths of the history of science.” Citing a study by Harvard professor and MacArthur Foundation “genius” Frank Sulloway, the book details how little Darwin actually took away from the Galapagos after his five-week visit. He had “no eureka flashes of enlightenment,” she writes, “it would take decades before his final theory transcended his religious beliefs and his enduring doubts.”

In his book “Voyage of the Beagle” Darwin referenced the Galapagos sparingly; in his “On the Origin of Species,” published twenty years later, he never mentioned the finches – mistakenly thought by many to be the linchpin of his evolutionary theory – and which are named for him.

It took those twenty years between publications for the significance of the Galapagos to sink in on Darwin. For two decades he wrestled with the history of creationism and its relevance to species diversity. In the end, he came down on the right side of the argument (unless of course you are among those who continue to believe the planet is only 6,000 years old and that life as we know it was created in six days). That his name and theory are so inextricably linked with both evolution and the Galapagos is something Darwin could have never predicted. Nor could he have predicted the clash of economics and the environment, which so wrack the place today.

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