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March 8, 2001 - Puerto Ayora, Galapagos, The following report is taken from a letter recently sent to Mr. Juan Schiess, President of the Chamber of Tourism of Galapagos, in response to his request for an assessment of the status of touristic resources following the recent oil spill.
The work of assessing the level of shoreline contamination and evaluation of ecological impacts is still in progress. However, I can say with some confidence that the effects of the spill on the wildlife populations of Galapagos have been slight, albeit quite widespread around the archipelago. It is unlikely that a regular Galapagos visitor would notice any trace or impacts of the spill. Despite the accident, the Galapagos National Park and Marine Reserve still comprise one of the most pristine island ecosystems on the planet.
Right now the Galapagos National Park Service and Charles Darwin Research Station are undertaking an assessment of the levels of contamination around the coastlines of all the affected islands. Where significant amounts of oil are found, they will be cleaned up. Scientists will study contaminated and uncontaminated sites, as well as species considered to be at risk, in order to evaluate the impacts of the spill. It is likely that there will be impacts in some sites and some wildlife populations. Whilst a few may be significant, the overall picture is one of scattered, minor impacts. Indeed, it may be difficult to measure the impacts relative to the marked natural fluctuations in the Galapagos marine and coastal ecosystem between different seasons and locations. We expect to keep monitoring selected sites and species over a couple of years to make sure that there is full recovery with no unforeseen medium-term effects. At the same time, there is a need for a range of measures to prevent and prepare for emergencies of various kinds. We must heed the wake-up call!
Given the quantity of fuel spilled, the impacts could have been far worse. Galapagos wildlife appears to have had a lucky escape, mainly as a result of the currents and winds, which carried the diesel and bunker fuel away from San Cristobal Island, where the Jessica ran aground, into deeper, offshore waters. There the bunker fuel tended to disperse whilst the diesel fuel steadily evaporated in the intense sunshine before reaching the shores of the other islands.
Good luck with the weather was complemented by dedicated, hard work - the Galapagos National Park Service led a determined, community-wide effort to keep the bunker fuel off the beaches and rocky coasts. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Galapagos tour operators for their tremendous support of the conservation institutions during this emergency. Funds, logistical support, materials and people were all provided rapidly, and you personally participated in the daily meetings at the Park headquarters to review the situation and plan the next actions. It was an invaluable contribution to the local response that helped to minimise environmental impacts.
I am optimistic that the scientific evaluation will confirm the impression that the wildlife of Galapagos has come through this serious threat relatively unscathed. Of course, there are many other conservation challenges to face if we are to preserve the Galapagos Islands with all their current wealth of marine and terrestrial biodiversity -- introduced alien species and fisheries management problems are two that stand out. We look forward to continuing our collaboration with the tourism sector to address these and other issues for the conservation of this unique and wonderful archipelago.
Robert Bensted-Smith, Director
Charles Darwin Research Station
January 26, 2001 - New Zealand. The Jessica had no business being in Galapagos: She was decrepit, uninsured, didn't have a high-seas captain, had never been to Galapagos before, and had no local charts on board. The ship was supposed to deliver fuel to Baltra, which is a deep-sea harbour with no dangerous reefs, not San Cristobal Island where the port's other name is Wreck Bay! However, the company controlling her is part-owned by a relative of the minister of defense. Some say that is the only reason she got her permit to sail.
Second, there is only one ship in Galapagos which burns bunker fuel, a situation I understand they had been given a deadline to redress.
Third, in the first four days after the grounding but before the oil started leaking out, the owners of the cargo, state-owned Petroecuador, forbade, with the Navy's backing, any attempts by the Park and the Sea Shepherd Society's ship Sirenian to organize removal of the fuel still in the hold because they considered it theft. The Park director has publicly accused the owners of thwarting efforts to mitigate disaster in their own self-interest of safeguarding what they still hoped to be a salvageable (and uninsured) fuel cargo.
The oil spill was in part the result of petty politics, as oil spills around the world are wont to be, but mostly of carelessness. Thankfully, what I hear from the latest developments in the islands (and I had another long talk with people on the scene this morning), the currents, light winds and intense sun are all contributing to dispersing and evaporating the slick so it will probably not have that great an impact on the wildlife this time. But we can rest assured it will not be the last spill - let's just hope every one is properly prepared, and the National Park is given full authority to act, for the next one.
Ironically, the spill is being used by some to make the government look good because they are appealing internationally, collaborating with everyone, and can be seen to exhibit maximum concern for Galapagos. And it is a handy diversion from the much bigger problems of fishing - even the fishermen are getting kudos for helping with the clean-up, while their political support system, vocalized by a strident congresswoman, lambasts the conservationists for having failed to prevent it. Some want to blame the tourism industry or local development for the spill. While in essence, if there were no people in Galapagos there would be no need for oil, this imaginary solution would simply open the door to a complete free-for-all for international fisheries, with nobody on the scene to raise concerns and counter arguments, like in many parts of the Southern Ocean.
In spite of what I said above, I do think human pressures on Galapagos have reached critical mass and we can never go back again to how it was. This is because fishermen fled the mainland coast where fish stocks had collapsed, and because likewise world overfishing has reached such dire straights that Galapagos is now the unavoidable target of greed by this industry. The oil spill may indeed kill an unknown number of innocent animals and other forms of life, but there is no doubt that in due course it will dissipate and the ecosystem will repair itself if allowed to do so. But the problems of rampant overfishing, punctuated by bouts of violence and lawlessness as seen in recent months, will not go away any day soon.
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