Ecuador pressured to save Galapagos wildlife

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The Independent Online

Ecuador is facing pressure to act against thefishermen who are threatening the ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands, the archipelago that inspired Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

Ecuador is facing pressure to act against thefishermen who are threatening the ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands, the archipelago that inspired Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

As revealed by The Independent, the Ecuadorean government is being lobbied by the fishing industry to legalise long-line fishing inside the marine reserve at the Galapagos, despite its potentially catastrophic impact on the rare marine life there.

David Blanton from the non-profit International Galapagos Tour Operators Association, said the government could give in to the fishing lobby with potentially lethal consequences.

Long-lining in pursuit of tuna and swordfish also indiscriminately kills other marine life such as turtles, seals and penguins in by-catch.

The remote volcanic islands attract nearly 100,000 tourists a year, but tour operators warn that the £90m they bring in to the Ecuador economy is at risk from the fishing industry, which is worth only £6m.

Mr Blanton said: "We're losing the fight to preserve the Galapagos. Yes, travellers are arriving in record numbers. But look a little deeper and the news is not so good."

Unesco, the United Nations body that declared the archipelago a World Heritage Site in 1978, is considering granting the islands endangered status. A Unesco delegation is due to visit this month to investigate the "urgent situation" and will engage in talks with the government.

The Canada-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS), which have donated a former US navy cruiser to the Galapagos rangers to combat illegal fishing, said that corruption was behind the governmental backsliding on conservation. Paul Watson, the head of SSCS, said: "The new government has seen a hike in the influence of the fishing lobby. Corruption was already out of control and I didn't think things could get worse.

"But you can buy anything you want for a bribe. The fishermen have destroyed the stocks on the coast and now they want the Galapagos."

Experts warn that lifting the ban on long-lining would devastate the populations of silky and Galapagos sharks, as well as black-and-white-tipped reef sharks and the schooling hammerhead sharks.

Until recently, the islands remained unaffected by Ecuador's political instability but the new government of Lucio Gutierrez that came to power two years ago has been propped up by support from unions, including fishermen.

Xavier Bustamante, the head of Ecuador's leading conservation movement, the Funacion Natura, said: "In the past Galapagos was above the political games but not any more. Since this government took power there have been 11 park directors. That's an average of two a month."

The effect of this has been paralysing, according to analysts. Mr Bustamante said: "They don't understand that the Galapagos is unique. They are treating it in the same corrupt way they would any other province of the country."

Mr Watson said the park rangers, who went on strike last year over government interference, were doing their best in a bad situation. "A lot of them have great integrity. But every time the director tries to do his job he gets fired."

Tensions in the park spilled over into violence last year when fishermen, who were angry at attempts to enforce a ban on sea cucumber harvesting, threatened rangers with petrol bombs.

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