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Oil Threatens Extraordinary Ecosystem in Galápagos
The outer edge of more than 160,000 gallons of fuel oil has reached land on several of the ecologically diverseand fragileGalápagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean.
The oil is seeping from the Ecuadorian tanker Jessica, which ran aground last Tuesday. Ecuadorian officials estimate the ship was carrying 240,000 gallons of fuel.
In the last several days, the oil has bridged the 550-yard (500-meter) gap between the tanker and the nearest Galápagos islands, San Cristóbal and Santa Fe.
U.S. Coast Guard officials are helping efforts to remove oil still in the tanker. Its hard to describe just how difficult this operation is, said Commander Ed Stanton, the senior member of the Coast Guard team. The tanker is badly damaged and remains very unstable.
The Coast Guard team has managed to prevent up to 10,000 gallons of oil from escaping the damaged tanker. Officials said they hope to continue these efforts, once the ship is stabilized. Absorbent materials are being used to soak up some of the spill.
At stake: parts of an archipelago that teems with more than 5,000 different species, 1,900 of them unique to the Galápagos.
PARADISE UNDER THREAT
Some 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) off the coast of Ecuador, the islands heralded little global attention until after biologist Charles Darwin made landfall at the Galápagos in 1835.
The islands gained fame with the publication of the naturalists On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection 24 years later. In it, Darwin highlighted the diverse and unique species of the islands, which contributed to his groundbreaking theories of natural selection.
The islands inhabitants include iguanas, penguins, sea lions, albatross, and giant tortoises, for which the Galápagos islands were named.
Its an extraordinary ecosystem, said Johannah Barry, executive director of the Virginias Charles Darwin Foundation, which funds a research facility on the islands.
In 1959, 97 percent of the islands land was declared a national park by Ecuador. The sea around it was named a marine reserve in 1986. The archipelago is also considered a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Tourists have also come to the islandsthe Galápagos saw a 700 percent increase in tourism in the past 20 years. Tourism is a curse in disguise, one scientist, who blamed tourism for introducing non-native species to the Galápagos, told NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC magazine. If I had a choice of getting rid of fishermen or tourists, it would be no contest: Tourists would go.
Commercial fishing around the islands has been banned, but illegal fishing continues to threaten sea creatures.
TANKER ROUTE IS EVERYDAY ACTIVITY
The oil threat, however, comes from neither tourists nor fishermen. It comes from an oil tanker route that regularly runs between the islands.
This is an established route, explained Barry. Its like a bus route.
Whether we like it or not, [island residents] are going to consume diesel fuel, she said. Any time you have human intervention, theres potential for a problem.
Barry attributed the accident that led to the spill to an inattentive crew and a ship that was not terribly robust.
This is just an everyday activity that went terribly wrong, she said.
According to Spanish news agency EFE, the Jessica is registered in Ecuador under a flag of convenience law that does not require vessels of the tankers size to carry pollution insurance.
Despite its potentially devastating effects, the Galápagos spill is much smaller than that of the Exxon Valdez. The 1989 Valdez spill brought attention to the effects of oil on the environment when the tanker spilled about 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska. The largest oil spill on record occurred in 1991 when Iraq deliberately released an estimated 460 million gallons of crude oil into the Persian Gulf.
Like the Persian Gulf and the Prince William Sound, Barry said, the Galápagos will have to contend with the long- and short-term effects of the spill.
Its fouling the air, fouling the waterand there are animals in the way, she said. But extended effects on the ecosystem are also worrisome: theres the much larger, longer term toxic issue [affecting] corals, sea cucumbers, and food sources.
Tortoises of Galápagos. Click on picture to see photo gallery