Galapagos To Make Recovery

Tuesday, January 30, 2001
Ecuador's Galapagos islands should make a full recovery from the oil spill that tarnished its sandy shores, a sign of hope for the hundreds of unique species there that inspired British naturalist Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, scientists said.

With ecologists scouring the archipelago's surface for animals affected by the 160,000 gallon spill, the question remained as to what would happen to thousands of ocean critters that form the basis of Galapagos' ecosystem, nourishing the sea lions, iguanas and blue-footed boobies that have made the Ecuadorean islands famous worldwide. Several local ecologists have expressed concern that remnants of spilled bunker, a thick fuel used by some tour boats, will poison organisms that feed off the Pacific Ocean floor and serve as the basis for the ecosystem's food chain.

But most biologists and ocean scientists consulted by Reuters said that was unlikely to occur because nature's resilience should enable Galapagos to fully recover. "I would not worry about what the oil is going to do to plankton or other organisms eating plankton and toxins working their way up the food chain," said Larry Bender, professor of marine biology at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami.

Bender, who studies phytoplankton, explained that the organisms that form the basis of the ecosystem's food chain have such short life spans, of about 24 hours, that few would be affected and ingested by fish before they died. After cargo vessel "Jessica" ran aground on Jan. 16 half a mile from Galapagos' capital and spilled diesel and bunker into the park's pristine ocean a few days later. Environmentalists around the world were outraged, fearing mass deaths of birds and sea lions that live on the water's edge. Two dead birds and a few dozen oily pelicans and sea lions are the toll so far of the spill.

Westward winds and ocean currents have carried the oily film away from the bay cradling Galapagos' capital, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, some 600 miles west of Ecuador's mainland, broadening but lessening the overall impact. Mary Wilcox Silver, ocean scientist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said benthic contamination -- the pollution of animals living off the ocean floor -- is a valid concern, but the archipelago will benefit from strong currents that will help break up the toxins. "The waters of Galapagos are washed by a major current system, which are delivering new waters, so the residence time of contaminated water is not a big issue," she said. Likewise, most of the spilled diesel, a volatile, processed fuel, has already evaporated under the hot equatorial sun, according to technicians working on the clean-up.

The bunker is more difficult to clean, sticking to rocky coasts and the fur and feathers of some 50 animals, but is too thick to pass through marine organisms' skin and contaminate them, said Ron Tjeerdema, professor of environmental toxicology at the University of California at Davis. "It (the bunker) will break up into smaller globules mixed with salt and sand and debris and will sink to the bottom and degrade over time via bacteria," said Tjeerdema, explaining that tropical waters would speed up the breakdown of toxins, in contrast with the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill of millions of gallons of crude in Alaska, whose waters are much colder. While ecologists from around the world are pushing for stricter shipping and environmental regulations in Galapagos to prevent another accident from damaging the islands, and strict vigilance of mid-range spill impacts in the coming months, for the moment it seems they can breathe a sigh of relief. "The worst is already passing. There will be local effects, but it is not going to destroy a species, nor are the islands going to sink," said Gunther Reck, a former director of the Charles Darwin Research Foundation in Galapagos, now an ecology professor at Ecuador's San Francisco University. But, he cautioned, "the more people that live in Galapagos, the greater the probability of an accident in the future. And things are not always going to turn out this lucky." - (Reuters)

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