Challenges Facing the Galápagos Islands

The Galápagos Islands have evolved unique species of animals and plants found nowhere else on Earth. In 1835, young Charles Darwin visited the islands, and what he learned here helped inspire his theory of natural selection. In 1978, the Galápagos Islands were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, signifying their “outstanding value to humanity.” Today, they are a living laboratory of evolution and one of the world’s premier ecotourism destinations. They are, indeed, a priceless world heritage.

But like other isolated island groups, the Galápagos Islands face serious challenges for the long-term survival of their terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The International Galápagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA) and its members are helping to meet these challenges in significant ways, one of the most important of which is providing ecotours to the Galápagos. Tourism, in fact, funds scientific research and provides revenue that helps give the Ecuadorian government the incentive and resources to protect the islands.

Tourism itself, however, can create other problems, such as invasive, introduced species and burgeoning population growth. Every IGTOA member aids in addressing these issues not only by providing Galápagos tours, but by contributing precious and greatly needed monies for project grants and scholarships that directly benefit the islands.

Read about the archipelago’s challenges below, and learn how IGTOA members are actively involved in working to address them. Then travel to the Islas Encantadas with an IGTOA member, secure in the knowledge that you, too, are part of the solutions.

Introduced Species

From pirates and whalers to modern travelers, humans have, of course, left their “marks” wherever they have traveled in the Galápagos Islands. But one aspect of our kind’s arrival here has been particularly devastating to the fragile ecosystems in the archipelago: introduced, invasive plants and animals.

The most destructive aliens in the Galápagos are goats, which were brought to the islands in the 1850s by whalers looking for an alternative source of meat. Goats are exceptionally well adapted to survive in the Galápagos, whether in the arid lowlands or the moist highlands. Hardy animals, goats can navigate extreme terrain, climb trees, and drink seawater. But they consume valuable foods that Galápagos giant tortoises and iguanas need to live. If left alone, goats can turn a low-lying island into a desert in short time.

The Charles Darwin Research Station started the first systematic eradication program in 1965 in order to rid Santa Fé Island of goats. With no Transition or Moist Zones, the low island was known for its wide, open plains studded with prickly pear cacti forests and palo santo trees. Goats had severely damaged this vegetation. Ten years later, however, the last goat was culled on Santa Fé, and the island’s plant life recovered its lost density. The native rice rat is thriving again, as are land iguanas.

While goat eradication on other islands is making huge strides, there are other alien species currently threatening the delicate Galápagos ecosystems. Black rats, brown rats, cats, cattle, dogs, donkeys, horses, mice, and pigs are some of the worst offenders.

There have been more than seven hundred species of introduced, invasive plants to the Galápagos. The quinine tree, guava, and elephant grass are just a few examples. Unknown numbers of non-native invertebrates have arrived, too, such as the cottony cushion scale and fire ants.

A big step forward in controlling the introduction of new species to the islands came in 1999 when the Galápagos Inspection and Quarantine System (or “SICGAL,” its acronym in Spanish) was created. It was formally established in 2000. A program of the Ecuadorian Service for Agricultural Health, SICGAL works to prevent new species and organisms from being introduced into the Galápagos Islands by monitoring ports of entry and agricultural zones on the inhabited islands, utilizing protocols for fumigating incoming planes and boats, providing training for inspectors and technicians, and publishing and disseminating lists of permitted and prohibited products, among other efforts.

Currently, the Charles Darwin Research Station, the Galápagos National Park Service, and other organizations in the islands — such as the International Galápagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA) — have set their sights on eliminating all feral cattle, donkeys, goats, and pigs from the archipelago; getting rid of introduced rodents from the islands; wiping out the freshwater tilapia in El Junco Lake on San Cristóbal; and instituting humane sterilization programs for cats and dogs on inhabited islands. Feral cats and dogs, most likely introduced to the islands by early settlers, have especially been a threat to tortoise eggs, native iguana species, bird chicks, and even penguins.

In addition, feasibility studies are being conducted on using biological controls to deal with introduced ants, wasps, and the mosquito that potentially carries the West Nile virus. Methods are being developed to control parasitic flies that endanger their host birds, and attempts to eradicate fire ants from the larger islands and priority small islands are still going on.

But eradicating introduced species and keeping new ones from arriving is a never-ending and enormously costly struggle. To help abate some of these expenditures, IGTOA has provided funds to the Charles Darwin Research Station for a neutering program to prevent the further spread of feral cats and dogs on the islands.

In 2012, WildAid, an organization whose mission is to end illegal wildlife trade by reducing demand through public awareness campaigns and providing comprehensive marine protection, received $25,000 from IGTOA, which supported a preventive quarantine initiative in the Galápagos Islands supply chain. The program is slated to design internationally accepted biosecurity protocols at the embarkation port in Guayaquil. The monies from IGTOA will specifically be used to help in procuring a biosecurity expert and equipment.

Human Impact

We humans are an introduced and invasive species to the Galápagos Islands, and there has been a dramatic growth in our numbers in recent years. Searching for a better life, settlers from mainland Ecuador have moved to the islands in droves, increasing the Galápagos population by more than 300 percent in the past few decades. This spiking population pressure is causing serious problems for conservation.

With only 3 percent of the islands set aside for human settlement, there is little room for this influx of people — and little for them to do except fish. Competition between local fishermen, the Galápagos National Park Service, and conservation workers has been heated and sometimes violent.

Aside from the pressure put on the archipelago’s natural resources (such as fish), this large growth means an increase in generated garbage, which has often been dumped in open-air sites and burned with no sort of treatment or separation. It is essential — if the measures already put in place to protect the biodiversity of the islands are to succeed — that the people who live here are brought into the process; that they help provide the answers to the islands’ challenges rather than be part of the problems. This can only be achieved via education and carefully crafted programs to make full and sustainable use of the economic resources found here.

Beginning in the 1960s, the Galápagos Islands saw a rise in a new type of human arrival, the ecotourist. As tourism began to increase, new pressures have been placed upon the islands.

For decades, tourists have marveled at the rich flora and fauna of the Galápagos. In the sixties, there were about 1,000 tourists per year. By 2012, that number had grown to more than 170,000. A second airport was built. Though measures are in place to protect the environment in the Galápagos, park officials have noted measurable changes due to tourism, including decreased flora, expansion of marked trails into protected areas, and increased waste material needing disposal.

Both of these stakeholder groups in the Galápagos — residents and tourists — have made attempts to arrest the escalation of ecological degradation in the Galápagos. One of the strategies that was introduced in the late 1990s was putting a cap or maximum limit on the number of visitors who could be on the main islands at any given time.

The Galápagos has also placed a strong emphasis on the values and practices of ecotourism in an attempt to attract a certain kind of tourist; one who is respectful of the ecology of the place and is sensitive to the fact that once lost, it cannot be recovered. Residents and tourists in the Galápagos are inextricably linked: For locals, keeping the Galápagos pristine is not simply a matter of protecting biodiversity but necessary for the economy, which thrives as a result of the tourist industry.

In order to help alleviate the human impact on Galápagos ecosystems, IGTOA has supported several initiatives in the islands, such as the Academy Bay cleanup, which was started by a group of local fishermen. They netted more than eight thousand pounds of waste.

In early 2001, a grounded ship spilled more than two hundred thousand gallons of diesel and bunker fuel into Galápagos waters. IGTOA provided emergency funds to help in the cleanup.

Threats to the Marine Reserve

The Galápagos archipelago has a rich marine ecosystem, nurtured by a confluence of ocean currents. This supports all terrestrial life on the islands. But illegal industrial fishing and over-fishing by locals threaten to undermine this wealth.

When migrants to the islands cannot find work in tourism, they often get jobs in the fishing industry. The sea cucumber and sharks of the Galápagos have become targets, both popular in Asian markets for their aphrodisiac and medicinal qualities. Due to the alarming decrease of sea cucumbers in the early 1990s, an executive decree enforced by the Galápagos National Park Service banned all fishing of them in the islands. Fishermen were not happy. Although a quota has replaced the ban, there have continuous strikes. In April 2004, angry fishermen besieged the Charles Darwin Research Station and demanded the right to use bigger nets and longer lines. The seizure ended with an agreement signed by César Narváez (then Ecuador’s minister of the environment), and the artisanal fishermen.

Today, according to marine biologists, sea cucumbers — along with lobsters — remain at dangerously low levels. And ships from other countries routinely enter the marine reserve illegally in search of rich catches, including sharks, which are harvested solely for their fins.

Overfishing has also significantly weakened the marine ecosystem’s ability to recover from the devastation caused by the El Niño of 1982–83, which triggered abnormal weather conditions. That climate event destroyed coral reefs in the archipelago, many of which had persisted for at least four hundred years. Fishermen had removed so many large predatory fish and lobsters from the islands’ seas, that huge numbers of sea urchins were able to colonize the area. They then overgrazed the coral, damaging it further and preventing it from re-establishing.

It seems that the Galápagos Islands are now teaching us about the far-reaching impacts of climate change on ocean ecosystems. Writes Sylvia Earle of the National Geographic Society, “Nowhere on Earth are the combined impacts of climate change and overfishing more clearly defined than in the Galápagos Islands. Decades of data link recent fishing pressures to disruption of the islands’ fine-tuned systems, making them more vulnerable to natural and anthropogenic changes in climate.”

The Galápagos Marine Reserve was established in 1986 by presidential decree of Leon Febrès Cordero. La Reserva Marina de Galápagos is one of the largest in the world. In 2001, UNESCO expanded the World Heritage Site status of the Galápagos (named in 1978) to include the Galápagos Marine Reserve. IGTOA has participated in a number of projects to help protect this natural jewel, such as:

  • providing anchorage off Wolf Island to support patrols looking for illegal fishing activity and shark finning in this remote sector;
  • donating a GPS system and video equipment to be used by Galápagos National Park Service rangers when they patrol the islands for illegal fishing;
  • and supporting WildAid in their information campaign to stop illegal shark finning.

Ecotourism has brought great economic benefit to Ecuador, and it remains the only practical way of supporting the Galápagos National Park. The model of low-impact tourism developed in the Galápagos has served the islands well.

Yet there are unwanted by-products from the tourist industry, such as contamination from boat paint and engines, oil spills, overused sites, a drain on the fresh water supply, and the introduction of plants and animals from the mainland. All of these must be addressed for tourism to remain a positive force. Tourism also needs to be kept to sustainable levels. This means a limit to the number of tourists, restriction on the type of tourism development, and close monitoring of tourist impacts.

In February 2012, the Galápagos National Park instituted new regulations to enhance tourists’ experiences while protecting the fragile ecosystems of the islands.

Under previous regulations, most tour providers were limited to seven-night itineraries (with only a few authorized to conduct ten-night or fourteen-night trips). The new regulations required that cruises in the Galápagos operate on a fifteen-day/fourteen-night schedule. Operators may divide that span of time into a maximum of four segments. Most tour operators have split their itineraries into one of several options: 1) two, seven-night trips; 2) two, five-night tours and one, four-night trip; 3) two, four-night tours and one, six-night trip; or 4) two, four-night and two, three-night trips. During its fifteen-day timeframe, a boat may not visit the same site twice, with the exception of the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island.

Under the previous regulations, some sites — such as Darwin Bay on Genovesa Island and Tagus Cove on Isabela Island — were off-limits to larger vessels. Lifting that ban resulted in increased visitor numbers at underused spots and decreased numbers at sites that are becoming imperiled from too much traffic.

For the first half of 2011, the majority of travelers landed at the airport on Baltra Island. A smaller share of visitors landed at the San Cristóbal Island airport. By including the requirement in the new regulations that the airport on San Cristóbal be utilized at least once in every fifteen-day/fourteen-night cruise schedule, some of the tourist pressure on Baltra was also lightened.

The Galápagos Islands were among the first group of sites added to the World Heritage List in 1978. But in 2007, threats from increasing tourism, overfishing, and encroaching invasive species put the Galápagos on the List of World Heritage in Danger places. However, because of Ecuador’s progress in strengthening conservation measures, the Galápagos were removed from that roster in July 2010.

IGTOA has been instrumental in establishing a best practices program for the travel industry by providing funds to Conservation International and Rainforest Alliance for their program to institute standards of operation for tour companies.

Welfare of Galápagos Residents

Whether through fishing or the tourism industry, it is nature that provides most of the livelihoods in the Galápagos Islands. The fishing community makes up almost 3 percent of the population and is organized into cooperatives that, with the help of the Galápagos National Park Service and other conservation organizations, collaborate to maintain sustainable fishing practices. The park is also a large employer of residents who work as guards on boats that patrol against illegal fishing or do the tough work of helping to eradicate introduced species.

The youthful population, with an average age of thirteen to fourteen years, suffers from limited health care and a poor education system that makes it difficult for even the best students to qualify for universities on the mainland. But the vitality of the Galápagos depends on having enough economic opportunities for residents — opportunities that are also environmentally friendly. Recognizing this, the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) employs and trains many natives. And tourism, while a challenge to the islands’ ecosystems, is the source of most of the jobs in the Galápagos, including certified guides trained by the park service, boat operators, souvenir vendors, and town employees. In fact, one islander is employed for every four tourists who visit.

In 2012, IGTOA awarded the Charles Darwin Research Station with a grant of $28,000. IGTOA members allocated $10,000 of these monies to the station for general operating support — to help it improve its physical and staffing infrastructure in order to meet the islands’ present and future challenges. The remaining $18,000 was awarded towards an interpretive services program.

The CDRS on Santa Cruz Island (and its giant tortoise captive breeding center located on-site) has become an important visitor stop for cruise- and land-based tourists. Guides are the critical link between these visitors — who are potential donors — and the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF). An interpretive services team of volunteers (international, Ecuadorian, and Galápagos residents) is maintained by the CDRS, and the grant money was put to use to make these volunteers more knowledgeable about and have up-to-date information regarding the foundation’s work.

The executive director of the Charles Darwin Research Station, Swen Lorenz, said at the time, “CDF is very pleased to continue partnering with IGTOA in providing for a visitor services team, which enables young Ecuadorians and Galápagos residents to gain experience in tourism and public relations. Our goal is for visitors to the station to receive personal attention to make their visits as pleasant and informative as possible. We look forward to continuing our collaboration and to working together with IGTOA to protect and conserve the natural biodiversity of the Galápagos archipelago.”

The people of the Galápagos themselves will ultimately be the best stewards of their natural heritage. Those who live in the islands require good housing, health facilities, education, and jobs that contribute to the future of the islands. Sharing in the benefits of tourism will help them achieve those things.

Other projects that IGTOA has participated in to improve the lives of Galápagos residents include:

  • a recycling center — IGTOA supported the Funcacion Galápagos’ Recycling Center on Santa Cruz Island;
  • a scholarship for a research project — IGTOA sponsored an Ecuadorian graduate student working on baseline studies of the Galápagos giant tortoise at the Charles Darwin Research Station;
  • a scouts program in Puerto Ayora — IGTOA funded a project to provide environmental education and activities for a mixed-gender scout group on Santa Cruz Island.
Welfare and Education of Visitors

Ecotourism is a term that has alternately been described as “green travel,” “sustainable tourism,” or “nature-based travel.” The actual definition of ecotourism as defined by the International Ecotourism Society is: “Responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and improves the welfare of the local people.” There are many benefits to this specialized travel style, including preserving the environment and natural resources of the places you visit and learning about new cultures.

The best way to experience the Galápagos Islands is as a part of a guided tour aboard a small cruising vessel, which functions as your “home” for the duration of your visit. Ships anchor near islands, and passengers are ferried ashore on pangas (small, Zodiac-type boats) twice a day. Each island offers different natural wonders. Knowledgeable naturalists help you to interpret the islands’ wildlife and plants while you are ashore, making the unique biology of each island come alive.

Visitors to the Galápagos must be accompanied at all times by guides who have been trained by the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) and licensed by the Galápagos National Park. This rule protects you, as well as the park. Galápagos guides are intimately familiar with the visitor sites and are enthusiastic to share their knowledge. During evenings aboard ship, the guides give briefings on the day’s and the following day’s events. Recognizing the high level of training that needs to be provided to ship captains, crews, and naturalist guides in order to make your visit as educational as possible, IGTOA has provided funds to purchase hundreds of books for a library in Puerto Ayora, to be used by guides and crews in their studies.

And in order to help visitors learn about the Galápagos Islands and its culture, IGTOA has funded several staff positions at Van Straelen Hall, the visitor interpretation center at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island. The CDRS is an international non-profit organization, instrumental in providing the park service with scientific information and advice. Station facilities include a library, museum, herbarium, darkroom, computer center, marine laboratory, plant nursery, a research vessel named Beagle, and a visitor center. More than two hundred scientists, educators, volunteers, and students from Ecuador and around the world conduct conservation-oriented research at the station. In addition, CDRS trains naturalist tour guides and involves the local community in environmental education.

Ecuador’s National Park Service joined forces with CDRS more than forty years ago; and together, the two institutions dedicate their services to the use, conservation, and protection of the Galápagos Islands. The station’s activities include a long-running and successful captive breeding program for endangered Galápagos giant tortoises and land iguanas. Three species of land iguanas and eight subspecies of giant tortoises have been saved from extinction. In March 2000, scientists released the one-thousandth tortoise to Española Island; which in 1965, had only fourteen of the reptiles remaining. On Pinta Island, the research station and the park service have worked diligently since 1996 to eradicate more than eighty thousand feral goats.

Besides goats and pigs, wild dogs have been removed from Isabela; and rats were eradicated on Bartolomé. Other projects strive to conserve endemic and threatened birds, such as the mangrove finch, Galápagos penguin, and flightless cormorant.

Galápagos travelers can do much prior to their departure to prepare themselves for their upcoming journey. In order to get acquainted with this amazing archipelago and its marine reserve, check out the IGTOA recommended reading list. These books will help you gain a deeper understanding of and respect for your host country, its people, and environment.

The IGTOA mission is to preserve and protect the Galápagos Islands as a unique and priceless world heritage. Our members believe that those who travel to the islands deserve good health and safety conditions, boats that are operated responsibly and professionally, and an enriching and educational experience. When you travel with an IGTOA member, you can rest assured that you are traveling with a company that recognizes the challenges facing the Galápagos Islands and that is dedicated to being a part of the solutions. IGTOA members have proven that they care about the conservation of the islands and that they have taken every precaution to give you a memorable, educational, and thrilling adventure, without harming the natural biota of this special environment.

You can see all of IGTOA’s member companies on “Our Members” page. Your experience of a lifetime to the Galápagos Islands is too important to leave to chance. We encourage you to book your Galápagos Islands tour with an IGTOA member. 

Governmental Support and Control

The government of Ecuador has been instrumental in protecting the Galápagos Islands, and for this the country should be commended. In recent years, however, there have been lapses in financial support, enforcement of laws and regulations, and proper planning.

In 1959, the Galápagos National Park was created; and in 1973, the archipelago was incorporated as the twenty-second province of Ecuador. In 1998, a landmark effort among many organizations and governmental agencies produced the Special Law for the Galápagos, a series of sweeping, protective measures meant to conserve these singular islands and their unique plants and animals. The Special Law addressed three big issues: immigration restriction, quarantine of introduced organisms, and fisheries. Under the law, the marine reserve became a legally protected area — managed by the Galápagos National Park Service, along with local institutions — and the marine reserve area was extended from fifteen to forty nautical miles around the whole archipelago, with only tourism and local artisanal fishing permitted within this area. This outlawed industrial fishing of all types.

The Galápagos National Park comprises 97 percent of the Galápagos archipelago. The remaining 3 percent includes urban areas and agricultural zones inhabited by human populations. To better understand human dynamics on the islands, the Special Law implemented a registration system to monitor existing populations on the islands. In 1998, the Special Law strengthened the mandate of the Galápagos National Institute (INGALA) — a governmental office created in 1980 that is responsible for coordinating regional planning, government funding, and technical assistance in Galápagos — putting it in charge of a more rigorous population registration system that tracks specific population types in and out of the islands.

Currently, there are four human population types defined in the Galápagos: (1) undocumented or “illegal” workers from the mainland of Ecuador; (2) “permanent residents,” or the native population of Galápagos; (3) “temporary residents,” or workers subject to legal residence restrictions of labor contracts; and (4) “tourists.”

Unfortunately, the implementation and enforcement of the Special Law has left much to be desired. IGTOA has supported the government of Ecuador in its efforts to preserve and conserve the Galápagos Islands with an emergency land purchase and a boat certification program. At the request of the Charles Darwin Foundation, IGTOA recently stepped in to provide funds to purchase private land that will be turned into a protected area. And IGTOA gave money to CAPTURGAL (the Galápagos Chamber of Tourism) to help with setting up an international safety certification for locally owned boats operating in the Galápagos.

Challenges Facing the Galápagos Islands Video

For more on the challenges the Galápagos Islands face, watch the video below.

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