Alarm bells have been raised after the discovery of hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels near the Galápagos Islands – the archipelago which inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
A fleet of around 260 ships are in international waters just outside a 188-mile wide marine reserve around the islands, but their presence has already raised the prospect of damage to the delicate ecosystem as the boats sit on the migration routes of endangered hammerhead and whale sharks.
There are also huge concerns that plastic waste is being dumped overboard, polluting the pristine beaches and threatening ocean creatures.
Esme Plunkett, a biologist and researcher for the Charles Darwin Foundation, fears their fishing techniques are ignoring regulations and catching endangered species.
“It is not unusual to find the odd bottle washed up but I have never seen a quantity like this. The Mandarin labels are intact, suggesting they were recently disposed of,” she said.
Ecuador is currently patrolling the waters to ensure the fleet does not enter the limits of the marine reserve. But help is desperately needed from the international community to ensure there is not a repeat of 2017 when a Chinese vessel was found in the marine reserve laden with 300 tons of fish –predominantly shark.
The Galápagos Marine Reserve has one of the world’s greatest concentrations of shark species, while the islands are also renowned for their unique plants and wildlife. Unesco describes the archipelago as a “living museum and a showcase for evolution”.
In 2010, I was one of the lucky quarter of a million tourists a year to visit the island to snorkel alongside hammerhead sharks, Galápagos sea lions and giant sea turtles in these unique waters.
The islands also inspired much of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, when he observed that the species on the different islands were similar but had adapted differently to their particular environments.
The Galápagos are ordinarily protected by the local community which has invested so much in conservation. But it does not have the resources to monitor a threat as big as this.
Global protection and action is urgently needed to ensure all of the efforts to protect this World Heritage site – and others in the future – don’t simply go down the drain.