Battle over ecosystem in Ecuador

Ulhas Joglekar ulhasj at SPAMbom4.vsnl.net.in
Wed Jan 3 19:00:37 MST 2001


Saturday
30 December 2000

Battle over ecosystem in Ecuador

QUITO: The Galapagos Islands, the natural laboratory that Charles Darwin
used to develop his theory of evolution, are now the scene of a man-made
struggle for survival of the fittest between fishermen and conservationists.
Fishermen on the Galapagos archipelago, angry about limits on their lobster
catches, have ransacked the Charles Darwin Foundation's research stations
and harassed tourists in recent months. They even took giant Galapagos
tortoises hostage, kidnapping them from a breeding centre.
The hundreds of fishermen halted their protests in mid-November after the
government met their demands by loosening limits on lobster trapping,
increasing the quota to 80 tons from 50 tons and extending the fishing
season through the end of the year.
But the struggle didn't end there. Now, Environment Minister Rodolfo Rendon
said Wednesday, the fishermen are demanding "absolute liberty to fish, to
use highly destructive methods, such as long-line fishing, and absolute
freedom to fish for shark fins," currently an illegal practice in Galapagos
waters.
The Galapagos archipelago, 600 miles west of the Ecuadorean mainland, is
Ecuador's main tourist attraction. Its species of plants and animals, found
nowhere else in the world, have unique characteristics that were made famous
by Darwin, the 19th century naturalist. The foundation bearing his name is a
main promoter of conservation of the island chain's delicate and threatened
ecosystem.
Much of the current turmoil stems from a 1998 law that gave residents
greater political autonomy but also established a marine reserve extending
40 miles offshore. Within the reserve, only tourism and local small-scale
fishing are permitted.
"We are resentful of the authorities because they don't let us fish," said
Vincent Torres, a resident of Isabela Island, the largest in the chain.
"They come and tell us that now we cannot do the same things we have done
for a lifetime."
The fishermen have powerful allies in Ecuador's commercial fishing industry
on the mainland.
"I am in agreement with the demonstrations of discontent by the fishermen
because it is tourism and the increased population on the islands that are
harming the ecosystem," said Cesar Rohon, president of Ecuador's National
Chamber of Fishing Trade.
"To administer fishing one must understand it, and the government does not
know what resources are available in the Galapagos," Rohon said. "The
ecologists, who have international support, don't know what to do with those
resources."
Rohon denied that Ecuador's fishing fleet wants to exploit protected
Galapagos waters. But he did not rule out the possibility "that fishing
fleets from other countries enter the zone and are very difficult to
control."
Fernando Espinoza, executive director of the Charles Darwin Foundation
Research Center, contended that larger commercial interests are at work
behind the scenes of the fishing protests.
"We know there are people who have offered to buy entire catches of lobster,
sea cucumbers and shark fins from the fishermen of the Galapagos Islands. It
is a tremendous business," Espinoza said, without elaborating.
It is a business that has attracted more fishermen to the islands from
Ecuador's mostly poor population on the mainland.
This year, 939 fishermen took part in the Galapagos lobster catch almost
double the number registered a year earlier.
The increase not only depleted the lobster population at a dangerous rate,
but also decreased annual earnings for each fisherman, the Darwin Center has
said. It also made other catches on the island, like shark fins and sea
cucumbers, more attractive.
Shark fins are a delicacy in many Asian countries, where they are considered
an aphrodisiac and fetch as much as $40 a pound. The sea cucumbers,
bottom-feeding invertebrates crucial to the shallow water ecosystem, are
also an Asian delicacy. The fishermen can sell them for $1 a piece.
"Fishermen who can get a couple of thousand sea cucumbers are doing as well
as a dope dealer selling cocaine on the mainland," said Dr John McCosker,
chair of aquatic biology at the California Academy of Sciences.
McCosker criticised Ecuador's government for giving in to the fishermen's
demands last month by upping the lobster limit.
"It's tragic, the short-term gain of a few fishermen versus the long-term
survival of the Galapagos," he said. "They are killing the golden
goose."(AP)
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