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Galapagos Islands Struggle to Balance Ecology and Economy - 2004-04-01

Ecotourism has been growing at a 20 percent annual rate. It now accounts for one out of five vacation trips around the world. Eco-travelers often hope that their tourist dollars will encourage local residents to protect their natural wonders.

The Galapagos Islands, located 1,000 kilometers off the coast of Ecuador, are one of the world's best-known eco-tourism destinations. Many view them as a model of how to balance the needs of local residents, tourists and conservationists. Yet even in this paradise, business growth can conflict with conservation, as a recent fisherman's strike demonstrates.

Half a dozen planes a day touch down on the old airbase landing strip of Baltra Island, slowing past scrub brush and cactus. Passengers pour down the jet-way into the simple wooden building that's their entry point to the Galapagos Islands.

Every year, 60,000 tourists tour the Galapagos, best known for its giant tortoises. The strange creatures of these Pacific islands inspired Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. While some of the oddities that Darwin saw are now extinct, many still thrive along the black lava coasts of this archipelago, where marine iguanas bask in the sun and boobies lift their bright blue feet in a mesmerizing courtship dance.

To minimize the pressure on these remarkable creatures, tourists who travel throughout the islands eat and sleep in small yachts that can anchor in protected bays. Whenever they go ashore, tourists are supervised by certified naturalist guides, and must stay on carefully marked trails. Despite those restrictions, the wonders of the Galapagos Islands are easy to see.

In the wetter highlands, a giant daisy tree forest enshrouds the tourists as certified Naturalist Guide, Luis Die, points out a woodpecker finch. Many tours include a short stop at Puerto Ayora, a port town on the island of Santa Cruz. The T-shirt and souvenir shops along the dusty main street are a far cry from the fancy resorts of Tahiti or Hawaii. Galapagos conservationists have worked with town fathers, tourist groups and fishing unions to keep it this way for the sake of the wildlife? and the tourist dollars.

While many efforts to slow development have been successful, limits on population growth have a long way to go. In 1980, only 4,000 people lived on the dozen or so islands that make up the Galapagos. Today it's 18,000. Most work in tourism, but 1,000 fishermen now ply the waters, especially eager to harvest high-value delicacies, such as sea cucumbers, shark fins and lobster.

Some don't like the conservation rules that restrict their catch. To publicize their grievances, a group of militant fishermen recently stormed the Darwin Research Center near Puerto Ayora. Armed with machetes, the fishermen took more than 30 scientists and several rare tortoises hostage. They told authorities they want permission to catch more fish by using long lines, on which hundreds of baited hooks dangle in the water. They also want a bigger catch of tourist dollars in their home towns, by relaxing conservation rules that prevent the big cruise ships, that carry up to 500 passengers, from stopping in port towns. While all the scientists and tortoises were released unharmed, concerns continue about the fishermen's demands.

"In Galapagos, the problem is all time with the fisherman, national park, said Leonidas Mora, a Galapagos native who teaches in the local high school on Santa Cruz. He says that while he wants residents of Galapagos to prosper, they also need to care for the animals.

"For me, the animal is very important. Nosotros tenemos que cuidad. [We need to take care] This is with my life," he said. "I born in Galapagos, I like it in Galapagos."

The eco-tourists like the islands, too, and back on the nature trail, a small group pauses to "catch" a few photographs of a green sea turtle basking in a lagoon. "In Galapagos they are still very abundant," says naturalist Luis Die. "But worldwide, sea turtles are not doing very well because of us, the humans."

He worries about the giant creatures.

"We're building hotels in their nesting beaches, therefore stopping them from breeding," he said. "We are fishing them with long lines, drift nets, and there's a virus that's attacking them, probably caused by water pollution. There's all kinds of things killing the sea turtles massively all over the world."

Mr. Die says that similar developments in the Galapagos could jeopardize the entire ecosystem. For instance, long line fishing could lead to the inadvertent killing of sea turtles, sea lions and albatross.

Even with the current rules in place, there's plenty of illegal fishing in these protected waters. Unlike many of the commercial fishing areas closer to the mainland, the National Marine Preserve surrounding these islands has not yet been over-fished. Sometimes big commercial fishing boats from Ecuador slip in undetected, sometimes it's local people.

A tourist from California points across the turquoise sea to a patrol vessel, towing a rundown boat.

"The authorities apparently had stopped a small fishing boat and arrested it and were towing into the main port," the visitor said. "They were fishing illegally in these waters, or so we were told."

While this tourist sympathizes with the desire of people to make a better living, he believes the greatest assets of these islands remain the natural ones.

"It seems like it's a very high priority to preserve these islands and all the surrounding waters in the most pristine state possible, and fishing is an unnatural activity that doesn't lend itself to a natural course of events," he said. "So I would be in favor of their enforcement policies."

A national commission has been established in Quito, Ecuador's capital, to review the fishermen's demands. Some social scientists suggest that more investment in schools and health care systems within the Galapagos would address many of their concerns. But growing population and the enticing chance to cash in on the fish stocks and big cruise ships remain a constant pressure.

Conservationists worry that unless more tourists speak up about the need to protect the Galapagos, the threat of further violence from fishermen will cast a long shadow over the islands' natural wonders.