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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 diverse—and fragile—Galápagos 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. “It’s 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.


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 naturalist’s 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.

“It’s an extraordinary ecosystem,” said Johannah Barry, executive director of the Virginia’s 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).

Despite these protections, the Galápagos have faced an increased number of natural and man-made threats. El Niño warmed the islands’ once-cool waters, killing marine plants and disrupting the food chain.

Tourists have also come to the islands—the 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.


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. “It’s 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, there’s 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 tanker’s 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.

“It’s fouling the air, fouling the water—and there are animals in the way,” she said. But extended effects on the ecosystem are also worrisome: “there’s the much larger, longer term toxic issue [affecting] corals, sea cucumbers, and food sources.”

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Tortoises of Galápagos. Click on picture to see photo gallery
(Wolfgang Kaehler © Corbis)

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Sopping Up the Spill

The modern world’s addiction to fossil fuels has resulted in some colossal oil-spill disasters—and sometimes imaginative ways to mop up after them.

In the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska, fertilizer was used to soak up oil that washed up on the shore. This fertilizer and oil mixture is eaten by naturally occurring bacteria. But because the fertilizer is water soluble, it does not effectively work in open water.

A special type of oatmeal high in protein can be scattered on to an oil spill on the water. Again the oatmeal soaks up the oil and relies on wind and waves to break down the conglomeration into edible bits for protein-loving bacteria to eat.

A cocktail of microbes can be used to feed on oil waste. Depending on the type of spill, up to 12 different kinds of bacteria are mixed in varying proportions to consume oil, a treatment that is also more cost-effective than conventional spill treatments. When the oil is gone, the bacteria have nothing to feed on and die.

Fire is also used to rid spilled oil from the surface of the sea. This “aqua-barbeque” can be thought of as a trade-off in pollution, using an agent that cleans the water while polluting the air. Burning off oil cannot be used on inland spills or near large populations due to resulting air pollution and on rough water or high winds. It must be used within 72 hours before the oil becomes water logged. With the Exxon Valdez spill, 35,000 gallons (120 metric tons) of oil was burned off.

Cosby M. Newsome, U.S. inventor, has developed a honeycomb structure that scoops up oil. Using technology first designed for use in lightweight combat jets, this invention is attached to barrels pulled behind a boat. Tests show that the device could possibly absorb 100 percent of an oil spilled, and under high-pressure steam, the oil could be collected into a holding tank.

Linseed farmers may have a market for a byproduct of their harvest. Waste straw from linseed plants can be woven into mats and placed on oil spills to soak up the black goo. The mats themselves are biodegradable, although they do have to be collected after they are used to soak up oil.

Finally, Alabama hairdresser Phillip McCrory is reported to have discovered that human hair is a natural oil collector. He came up with the idea after seeing how oil stuck to the fur of an otter. In his own test, he stuffed four pounds of hair into a nylon bag and put it in his son's wading pool with a gallon of motor oil. Within two minutes, the water was clear.

Erin Streff