The Galapagos Marine Reserve: paradise or peril?
The Galapagos archipelago is located 1000 km off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean and encompasses a diverse ecosystem, currently consisting of 13 larger islands and 6 small islands with a surprising population of 25,000 people.
The Galapagos islands are a continuously ever changing environment, formed through volcanic hotspots which release molten lava through the earth’s crust. The molten lava cools when mixed with the ocean water and solidifies, over time the solidified molten rock builds up enough to break through the ocean surface thereby forming a land mass. The creation of several islands over an extensive period is due to the movement of the tectonic plate, in this case the Nazca plate, as the plate moves and the island moves with it, and the hotspot remains stationary and the process begins again to form another new land mass.
The creation of a Marine Protected Area (MPA)
In 1998 the Ecuadorian government announced the Galapagos Marine Reserve, covering a total area of 133,000 km2 the reserve would become one of the largest marine protected areas in the world. Today the marine reserve is home to over 3,000 fish species, with approximately 2,900 marine species having been recoded of which 18.2% were found to be endemic.
The Galapagos marine reserve seemingly provides an idyllic almost completely untouched oasis for a wide variety of unique and in some cases endemic marine species. This is affirmed in the Galapagos marine reserves status as a world heritage site due to its ecological value in ‘conserving and maintaining unique species’. Endemic species are organisms that are native and restricted to just one location and generally can’t be found anywhere else. Within the Galapagos a vast number of endemic marine species can be found, most notably the marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus), the Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) and other species such as the Galapagos sea lions (Zalophus wollebaeki) which use the galapagos islands as an exclusive breeding ground.
Threats to the Galapagos Marine Reserve
However, life in the Galapagos marine reserve faces many threats, including illegal fishing, pollution, tourism, introduction of non-native species and more significantly the impacts of climate change.
With such an undisturbed and diverse community of fish species located in one area, the temptation for illegal fishers is exceedingly high. This is enhanced by the lack of monitoring and patrolling which is expensive and challenging over such a vast area. Illegal fishing along with commercial fisheries can not only cause overfishing of the marine fish but can also result in damaging of the marine environment through fishing techniques such as dredging and blast fishing. Ultimately this led to significant drops in commercial fish populations and also has a direct impact on the people local to the Galapagos islands who rely solely upon fish stocks for sustenance and a source of income.
As one of the most famous and recognisable areas for unique species the Galapagos is undoubtedly going to attract tourists, however the Galapagos now attract over 160,000 tourists per year which whist economically beneficial has in some cases negatively impacted the area ecologically. Due to increased pressures of an influx of people, there is a greater need for development of infrastructure and resources on the Galapagos, which will ultimately spoil the uniqueness of the marine reserve. Because of these concerns, in 2007, the Galapagos was added to the list of world heritage sites in danger.
The increased migration of people has also led to more pollution and waste being introduced into the area and but more importantly the introduction of non-native species. In particular, non-native species pose an increased threat to the indigenous organisms particularly those of an endemic nature as there is a potential the invasive species will out compete the native species which could in turn eradicate endemic populations. In efforts to avoid this, in the 1960’s and 1980’s efforts to exterminate invasive species were highly successful with 95% of the original biodiversity of the Galapagos remaining, however it is an ongoing and ever growing threat.
The biggest threat to the Galapagos however is the impact climate change will have on weather processes and their frequency, those such as the El Nina and El Nino oscillations have already had a severe impact upon Marine Iguanas populations. In 1997-1998 the El Nino Southern Oscillation was thought to have changed the genetic composition of the Iguanas, data collected from eleven of the islands showed mortality rates of up to 90%. With climate change not slowing down and increasing events such as these it may only be a matter of time before this threat has wider and more permanent implication for the Galapagos Marine Reserve.