I’ve been to the Galapagos Islands seven times starting with a research trip in 1988, up to and including this current exploration. I have noticed many changes over that time. Porto Auyora, the main town on Santa Cruz Island, has tripled in size to about 16,000 inhabitants. Despite that, the airfield on Baltra looks the same as it did the first time I landed there. Change is something I have been asking our guides and scientists at the Charles Darwin Research Station – are things changing, and if so, how?
The answer is, yes, things are changing, but not as much as one might expect. For example, when I first visited the Galapagos there was a focus on fishing for sea cucumbers which were being sold to Japanese fishing companies. The rampant overfishing was clearly affecting the marine ecology. That, good to say, seems to be a thing of the past as fishermen now work together with the Ecuadorian Government and the National Park to fish at sustainable levels. Since 1990, there have been several other “gold rush” type fisheries. All of them seem to have been rationalized to a reasonable solution, and now appear to be conducted by Ecuadorians and with less and less foreign involvement.
The National Park works more effectively now, and alongside fishermen, both local and out-of-country NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations—usually conservation oriented ones), and citizens to watch over the Island’s marine ecosystems. They monitor what is happening and move to action when necessary. That said, the current President of Ecuador put through a law enabling the continued taking and sale of shark fins under the guise of permitting fins to be sold from “accidentally caught” sharks. This practice is a bad one and is having a negative impact on ocean food-chains worldwide as sharks and rays – top predators in the ocean are removed. This often shifts the balance of nature in the ocean environment resulting in the abundance of too many other species now that sharks, their main predators (and thus, the controls on their populations), have been removed.
In terms of the population of the Galapagos, it now totals about 35,000 people. That’s about double over the 15 years the Vancouver Aquarium has been bringing explorers to these amazing islands, and is due to purposeful efforts to re-settle Ecuadorians from the mainland to the Galapagos over the past 15 years. Thankfully, this effort by the Federal Government now seems to have eased, at least for the moment. This is important because it is hard to make a living in the Islands. With most islands protected in the Park, farming, logging and fishing are naturally limited options and are destructive to the unique ecosystems and animal populations. Tourism is a growing area and, last year, the islands received about 170,000 visitors. Young Ecuadorians are taking formal training as guides, vessel crews, and hotel staff, and the industry now provides jobs as well as acquainting many from outside with the wonders that exist here.
In terms of what we saw on the islands we visited, it is reassuring to note that nature seems to be carrying-on in a manner relatively less impeded by human actions, at least on the protected areas within the National Park. In fact, the controls on tourism operations and other activities, and the removal of predators and species, such as rats and goats, are both helping the islands’ ecosystems. The invitation to have tourists visit the islands is being managed and conducted with much less impact – perhaps the biggest and best change of all.