December 19, 2005

Galapagos Islands in Peril

International tourism association issues warning about the survival of the Galapagos Islands.

ITHACA, New York -- The fight to preserve the Galapagos Islands is being lost, according to the nonprofit International Galapagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA).

In a report issued Jan. 21, The State of the Galapagos, IGTOA warns, “Slowly but surely, we’re losing the fight to preserve the Galapagos Islands. Yes, tourism is doing fine, and travelers are arriving in record numbers. But look a little deeper; the news is not good. At the peak of their popularity, the Galapagos are in trouble.”
The report states that even under the best of circumstances, protecting the Galapagos is an enormous task. Invasive species of plants and animals require millions of dollars for scientific studies and eradication programs. The surrounding marine reserve, which supports all terrestrial life, is under attack from over fishing.

“The Galapagos Islands belong to Ecuador, which has historically been supportive of conservation, but that has changed,” says Dave Blanton, Executive Director of IGTOA. “Without that support, the task of conservation is insurmountable. “

He adds that narrow interests seek to exploit the islands’ rich marine reserve. At the same time, elements within the Ecuadorian government have weakened the role of the Galapagos National Park, which has had responsibility for monitoring and controlling the archipelago.

“Eight park directors have come and gone in the last two years,” Blanton says. “A strike last September by park staff over political meddling and mismanagement
turned violent when fishermen attacked park headquarters. The staff that participated in the strike now finds themselves on the outside.”

According to the report, contracts for 150 of the 226 park rangers have not been renewed, leaving the Galapagos National Park critically understaffed. Former employees report that the activities of the park have been paralyzed, especially the monitoring and control of the Marine Reserve.

The report also states that technical studies and regulatory mechanisms are being ignored. The government has stopped education for National Park Guides, (A guides’ course has not been held for the past eight years.) Only one patrol boat is currently operating, and in a new development, the government of Ecuador proposes that the patrol of the Galapagos Marine Reserve, carried out under statute by the Galapagos National Park, be turned over to the Ecuadorian Navy.

“Equally threatening is the practice of long-line fishing, which may soon be introduced,” says Blanton. “Long-line fishing was recently denounced by world scientists for its destructive “by-catch,” resulting in the death of sea birds, sharks, turtles, and other species.”

A recent article in Science magazine reports that long-lining kills 300,000 albatross each year. Nineteen of the 21 world species of albatross are in danger of extinction.

In a recent letter to the director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, IGTOA requested an investigation that may ultimately place the Galapagos on the list of World Heritage Sites in danger.

The Galapagos Islands, which Charles Darwin visited on a voyage as a young man, were declared a World Heritage Site in 1978. The Marine Reserve was added in 2001. The islands are home to plants and animals found nowhere else on earth, including giant tortoises, from which the islands get their name. They lie about 600 miles off the Ecuadorian coast in the Pacific Ocean. Tourism contributes $150 million to the Ecuadorian economy. Fishing in the Galapagos accounts for roughly $6 million.

IGTOA is a nonprofit association of travel companies, conservation organizations, and other groups that are dedicated to the complete and lasting protection of the Galapagos Islands and the surrounding Marine Reserve. It has thirty-five members worldwide in the US, Canada, UK, France, and Ecuador.

Its mission is to preserve the Galapagos Islands as a unique and priceless world heritage that will provide enjoyment, education, adventure and inspiration to present and future generations of travelers. Membership is open to commercial and nonprofit organizations.

For a list of IGTOA members click here:

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