The Galápagos Islands: A Battle Against Plastic Pollution

Last Updated: June 20, 2024By

The Galápagos Islands: A Battle Against Plastic Pollution

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Imagine you’re on a small fishing boat, gently floating in a bay near Puerto Ayora in the Galápagos Islands. The water’s so clear you can see a green turtle popping its head up right next to you. Then another one shows up, and soon, a third one joins. It’s magical. And look, a spotted eagle ray is gliding gracefully under the boat.

Our skipper, Don Nelson, steps off onto the black volcanic reef, slippery with algae. We follow him, passing by the twisted roots of mangroves. Pelicans are diving into the trees, and little birds are chilling on the branches, totally ignoring us.

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This place feels like a paradise. It’s home to giant tortoises and finches, the same creatures that sparked Charles Darwin’s idea of evolution nearly 200 years ago. The animals and humans seem to live together in perfect harmony here.

But then, something ugly catches our eye. A marine iguana, one of the unique Galápagos species, is sitting on a pile of plastic junk. There’s everything from fishing buoys to oil drums and drink bottles, all tangled up on the reef. This poor iguana, which the IUCN says is vulnerable, is at serious risk from all this plastic.

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“These reefs are resting places for pelicans and marine iguanas,” says Mariana Vera, the Galápagos programme manager for Conservation International. “It’s nesting season for turtles, too. Seeing all this plastic is just heartbreaking.”

Mariana picks up some plastic fishing ropes wrapped around mangrove roots. It’s crazy to think most of this trash comes from places like Peru, Ecuador, and China. Some studies say that plastic with Asian labels probably comes from nearby fishing boats, not carried all the way by ocean currents.

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Globally, about 20% of ocean plastic pollution is from maritime sources, but here in the Galápagos, it might be up to 40%. That’s a huge problem. Four years ago, a massive fleet of mostly Chinese fishing vessels was found near this reserve, causing an international uproar. Ecuador’s president at the time, Lenín Moreno, promised to protect this “seedbed of life.” Since then, the Chinese fleet has stayed further away, but illegal plastic dumping from these boats continues.

The Galápagos is the second most important nesting and feeding area for endangered marine turtles, after Mexico. Rodrigo Robalino, the environmental manager of the Galápagos National Park, tells us pollution is everywhere, but some spots are worse due to tides and currents. The windward shores get hit hardest.

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As we walk past towering cacti, we see more plastic—mostly clear drink bottles—among sun-bleached mangrove roots. The pollution is recent since there are no barnacles on the bottles. We count 21 bottles, many with Asian labels, and some from Peru. Brands like Inca Kola and international ones like Dasani and Gatorade are among the litter.

“These bottles are coming from other countries and international fishing fleets,” Rodrigo says. Twice a week, clean-ups are organized for the four inhabited islands. Plastic is shipped 600 miles to Ecuador to be recycled or landfilled. Last year alone, they collected 13 million tonnes. For more remote islands, clean-ups are rare due to high costs and difficult access.

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If they don’t collect the plastic, it breaks down into microplastics, which birds use for nests, and eventually, it ends up in the ocean. These tiny bits can be toxic, causing genetic damage to marine life and even humans.

The waters around the Galápagos, designated a UNESCO heritage site in 1978, are rich in biodiversity because of their unique location among three major ocean currents. The Humboldt current brings nutrient-rich water from Antarctica, supporting a vibrant marine ecosystem. However, these same currents now bring plastic waste.

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“Currents are a source of life here,” says Nicolás Moity, a marine ecologist. “They brought species here, but now they also bring plastics.”

Nicolás works with environmental organizations to identify plastic accumulation sites to better target clean-ups. Despite their efforts, the problem persists. Three years ago, Nicolás found that 75% of sea urchins had ingested microplastics. These tiny particles are ingested by everything from zooplankton to larger animals, and their effects are still largely unknown.

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Many species, like the critically endangered Santa Cruz giant tortoises and endangered green turtles, are at risk from plastic pollution. A study this year showed that giant tortoises were eating plastic, mistaking it for food. Up to 86% of the debris found in tortoise feces was plastic.

Ecuador has bid to host the signing of the UN plastics treaty in the Galápagos. This treaty aims to stop plastic waste globally and is expected to be signed in 2025. Dr. Jen Jones from the UK-based Galápagos Conservation Trust is working on a study about plastic pollution in the islands. She found that at least 40% of the plastic comes from maritime sources.

The trust is also organizing a mini-summit for small Pacific islands facing similar plastic pollution issues to highlight their role in protecting global biodiversity. This summit aims to push powerful nations to address the unfair burden of plastic pollution on small islands.

“This is a social justice issue,” says Jones.

Senegal, Peru, and Rwanda have also shown interest in hosting the treaty signing. Luis Vayas Valdivieso, the incoming chair of the treaty talks and Ecuador’s ambassador to the UK, understands the burden faced by islanders. “You can have the best national laws, but without a global agreement, it won’t work,” he says.

The fight against plastic pollution in the Galápagos is ongoing. While the problem is vast, the efforts of people like Mariana, Rodrigo, Nicolás, and Dr. Jones offer hope for these beautiful islands and their unique wildlife.

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