Sunday, December 17, 2006

Galapagos: The dark side

⊗ The Galapagos archipelago is much vaster and its main islands much larger than I expected, but so is the number of people living there. Despite 97% of the land area being a national park (since 1959) and the surrounding waters being a marine reserve (since 1998), both recognised as World Heritage Sites with unique ecosystems by UNESCO, the population has more than tripled over the last eight years. Puerto Ayora for one certainly seems to be booming judging from all the construction going on there.

⊗ The lure of economic opportunity has attracted a lot of new immigrants from the poor mainland, not just because of the money to be made in the substantial and still growing tourism industry, but also because of the rich fishing grounds. As most everybody, they're not here to make a sustainable living, but to get rich as fast as possible, no matter the cost to the environment. Local fishermen are a pretty big & aggressive lobby group on the Galapagos islands, regularly demanding larger quotas - as if they're respecting them in the first place. Unfortunately, whenever allowances are given (for sea-cucumbers, lobsters or whatever), they are exploited without any consideration and the reaped benefits generally quickly spent on instant gratification, not on securing ones living.

⊗ And it's not just the small men in the street, but also the big boys that are out there to make a killing. Fishing fleets seize any chance to make illegal forays into the marine reserve and scoop up its riches. (I was actually told that Japan shamelessly offered Ecuador to build a new airport & hospital, and generally improve the infrastructure on the Galapagos islands in exchange for fishing rights for the next ten years! After that there wouldn't be anything left anyways.)

⊗ The consequences of over fishing are alas clearly visible in the surprising absence of some species. While I still did see quite a few hammerheads, especially around Wolf & Darwin, (1) there were barely any white-tip reef sharks around, (2) strangely enough I only saw one Galapagos shark, (3) except for a small school or two, there were no jacks to be seen. It being my first time in the Galapagos, I can not of course compare what I saw with previous visits. My nearest reference therefor being Cocos island off Costa Rica's west coast, around the same time ten years ago, where white-tips were all over the place and where I witnessed truly huge schools of jacks, day after day.

⊗ Another problem with the growing number of people, both immigrants and tourists, is the ever increasing need for more infrastructure (land, housing, roads, electricity, water, etc) and food (locally grown & imported). Not to mention all the human waste that needs to be disposed of. As import of materials and food increases, so does the risk of invasive species free-riding in and exterminating the local ones.

⊗ Control? If there is any kind of patrolling or supervision going on I didn't notice it. Except for the officials at the airport making sure every tourist pays his/her 100 USD park visitor fee. An amount I don't mind at all paying for the privilege of experiencing the Galapagos, but I sure hope it all goes to the preservation of the natural state of the islands.

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