Showdown in the Galapagos

by Robert Langreth

It started last fall with ugly, slimy sea cucumbers - seven million of them, to be exact - being harvested from the protected waters of Ecuador's Galapagos Islands. It climaxed this January when fishermen with machetes took Galapagos researchers hostage to protest the closing of their fishing season. At stake in the ongoing controversy is the fate of some of the most unusual wildlife in the world.

Biologists have long treasured the Galapagos, the eastern Pacific island chain where Charles Darwin made observations that led to his theory of natural selection. Consisting mostly of uninhabited parkland, the archipelago is home to the world's only marine lizard, the only giant tortoises in the Western Hemisphere, and an array of unique birds.

So researchers were dismayed when the Ecuadorian government bowed to pressure from fishermen and declared a three-month sea cucumber season in the Galapagos starting last October 15. Sea cucumbers, it turns out, are revered as aphrodisiacs in the far east. With many other sea cucumber fishing grounds exhausted, the pristine waters of the Galapagos had become the perfect target for ambitious fishermen.

The total take wasn't supposed to exceed 550,000 cucumbers. But in the first two months alone, an incredible 800 fishermen swarmed the Galapagos and snatched seven million cucumbers from the sea floor. Researchers stationed on the islands were outraged. They weren't worried about the sea cucumbers themselves - they're as common as earthworms - but about the Islands' threatened reptiles. After catching the sea cucumbers, many fishermen were illegally going ashore into parklands to dry the cucumbers for shipment. They left behind much debris, raising fears that rats from the fishing boats would scamper ashore and, without predators to stop them, run rampant. Of special concern to scientists: Rats find reptile eggs especially tasty. Says Canadian ecologist Peter Bednekoff: "Rats would absolutely devastate a whole set of species if they got ashore."

After protests from tour operators and scientists, the Ecuadorian government halted the fishing season a month early. On January 3, several dozen fishermen, some armed with clubs and machetes, blocked the only road to the Charles Darwin research station on Santa Cruz island. For three days, they held scientists and their families hostage, threatening to slaughter giant tortoises in the research center's collection unless the fishing season was restored.

Finally, on January 6, Ecuadorian government negotiators convinced the fishermen to disperse; a few days later it brought in troops to guard the labs.

The archipelago is now quiet. But the major issues remain unresolved. Ecuador has put off a decision on whether to continue fishing until an international team of scientific experts makes a recommendation. A ruling, expected this summer, may determine the fate of the world's most famous ecosystem.

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Judith Gradwohl, Smithsonian Institution (Curator/Ocean Planet)