Wildlife faces wipeout in the cradle of evolution

Experts warn of 'catastrophic' fishing threat to Galapagos Islands
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Environmental disaster is looming in the Galapagos Islands, the Pacific archipelago whose unique wildlife inspired Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Already under pressure from a rapidly growing population and mass tourism, the waters around the Galapagos face being devastated by one of the world's most wildlife-damaging fishing methods.

The Galapagos have been officially protected for nearly 20 years and form part of the Galapagos World Heritage Site. But now the islands' 1,000 fishermen want to introduce long-lining - a technique involving lines many miles long holding hundreds of thousands of baited hooks, which catch and kill as many birds and animals as the fish that are targeted.

Conservationists fear that the species-rich marine ecosystem of the islands, governed by Ecuador, which is 600 miles to the east, will be cut to pieces.

Sea lions, dolphins, turtles, sharks, penguins, albatrosses and many other seabirds, all of which are major tourist attractions, are all likely to fall victim to the hooks.

"This will be a disaster for the environment," said Leonor Stjepic, the executive director of the London-based Galapagos Conservation Trust (GCT)last night.

There is growing worldwide alarm at the threat, heightened by the islands' iconic environmental status as the cradle of evolution - the place where Charles Darwin began to think about the origins of the many different species that could be found there and nowhere else, when he arrived as the naturalist aboard HMS Beagle in 1835. His Galapagos observations led directly to his theory of evolution by natural selection.

Unesco, the United Nations organisation which declared the islands a World Heritage Site in 1978, is so concerned that it is sending a delegation to the archipelago on 10 April to investigate the "urgent situation". The UN body is considering putting the islands on its "danger list", which is a catalogue of globally important sites at immediate risk. "If it is determined the threat is very serious and getting worse, the islands could be put on the danger list," said Unesco's marine specialist Marjaana Kokkonen.

Some observers feel the threat has increased under the current administration of Colonel Lucio Guiterrez, which came to power two years ago and has been propped up by support from militant unions, including fishermen determined to increase their catches.

Last year, an attempt to enforce a limit on sea-cucumber harvests - worth $3m (£1.6m) annually - angered Galapagos fishermen, who threatened park rangers with petrol bombs and in one incident took 30 scientists and a number of the islands' giant tortoises hostage. Xavier Bustamente, head of Ecuador's leading conservation movement, the Fundacion Natura, said: "If this situation doesn't change it will be catastrophic for the Galapagos."

The islands' burgeoning population, which has risen from fewer than 2,000 people in 1960 to nearly 27,000 today, puts increasing pressure on natural resources. But the long-lining issue threatens an imminent crisis - the fishermen will be holding a meeting with the islands' conservation board next month to press their case.

What concerns and angers conservationists around the world is that the fishermen want to use the method throughout the Galapagos marine reserve, which has been in existence since 1986 and protects all the waters around the 13 islands in the group. "If they bring it in, it will be the death of the Galapagos," said Paul Watson, a co-founder of Greenpeace, and now head of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Mrs Stjepic of the GCT pointed out that a long-lining pilot project had been carried out in the Galapagos last year and that the level of bycatch involved - the other marine life caught inadvertently alongside the catch - was "very high". She said: "It involved sharks, albatrosses, turtles, sea lions and boobies [a species of seabird] and in some cases it was 80 per cent of the total catch. Long-lining basically means anything that uses the sea to live or to fish is at risk."

She added: "In the Galapagos there are 29 species of sharks, 14 of which are officially considered under threat. If there is that level of bycatch there is very little possibility of them surviving." Another marine animal, the laud, or leatherback, turtle, was in imminent danger of extinction throughout the Pacific, she said. "Every individual caught as bycatch will represent a direct threat to the survival of the species."

Tour operators have come out strongly against long-lining. "We are completely against long-line fishing in any form in the protected waters of the Galapagos islands," said David Blanton, director of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association. "To us, it is inconceivable that this form of fishing is even being discussed for the Galapagos Marine Reserve, a World Heritage Site."


Marine iguana

Takes its red colouring from the seaweed that is the mainstay of its diet.

Galapagos albatross

One of the ocean's great travellers. It nests almost uniquely on the island of Española in the archipelago.

Blue-footed booby

The bird with the most comedic mating dance; raises its bright blue feet one at a time and then swivels its head away from prospective mates.

Galapagos penguin

Smallest of the warm weather penguins, it stands only 16in to 18in tall.

Green turtle

Abounds on the volcanic islands and lays its eggs in big batches on white sands.

Galapagos shark

Unique to these islands. Mainly a bottom dweller and hugs the varied coastline.