The non-profit  WildAid is working on an ambitious, multi-year plan to overhaul the cargo handling and quarantine procedures between mainland South America and the Galapagos Islands in order to prevent the arrival of potentially harmful new invasive species within the archipelago. The plan includes the construction and operation of a single port facility in Guayaquil, proper cargo vessel inspection and preventive biosecurity mechanisms at the primary ports of Galapagos. We checked in with WildAid’s Director of Marine Programs, Marcel Bigue, to learn more.

About Galapagos (AG): WildAid is perhaps best known for its campaigns to end the illegal wildlife trade around the world. How did you get involved in this different type of project in the Galapagos Islands and why?

Marcel Bigue of WildAid

Marcel Bigue of WildAid

Marcel Bigue (MB): Agreed. WildAid is best known for our demand reduction campaigns; however, we do have a marine enforcement program that focuses on stopping illegal fishing in marine reserves. We first got involved in the Galapagos in 1998 to address the very large and rampant shark fin trade that existed. We worked with the Galapagos National Park Service and Navy to deploy surveillance technologies, improve patrolling and even introduced sniffer dogs to detect the trafficking of shark fins, which were often smuggled in luggage and cargo leaving the islands for the continent.

Over time, we realized there was a huge, latent problem that was not being adequately addressed: preventing the introduction of invasive species via maritme cargo. For example, in 2011 alone, 803 tons of fresh food imports (potatoes, bananas, plantains, and yucca) were sent to the islands on a monthly basis while only 1-2% was inspected upon departure or arrival. This was alarming. The more we investigated, the larger the problem seemed. Once a species is introduced, it may be too late or costly to implement a successful eradication program and irreversible damage may occur to native or endemic species of plants, animals, or insects.

AG: What is wrong with the way that cargo is currently being shipped from the mainland to the Galapagos and how will your plan fix it?

MB: I want to first say that this is a process we started over four years ago. We have already had some success, however, this kind of project takes time to fully carry out. For example, historically there were three docks in Guayaquil that were used for the loading of cargo destined for Galápagos. That was too many docks for inspection personnel who were already spread thin. By working with local authorities we were able to close two of the docks and effective 2012, there is now only one dock, which allows greater scrutiny of all goods.

As to other problems, there is a very rushed and chaotic cargo inspection, registration and loading process that is complicated by the lack of industrial X-ray or biosecurity equipment and cargo-packing materials (containers and/or pallets). Most of the cargo is loaded as “loose cargo,” in sacks, bags, or cardboard boxes. In response, we are working to establish protocols, procure equipment and work with officials to properly inspect cargo.

Cargo ships were the next problem we addressed, as many did not meet international shipping standards and threatened to contaminate “clean cargo” while in transit to the Islands. In cooperation with authorities, we removed three of the seven cargo vessels servicing the Islands as they were unable to afford upgrades.

Finally we are working to improve unloading and quarantine mechanisms at key ports in the Galapagos. Again, at the receiving ports, the process is chaotic, lacks controls and is highly inefficient. As cargo growth is projected to increase three fold in the next thirty years, we aim to design a system that can handle not only today’s cargo, but also future growth while increasing filters, first in Guayaquil, then in the Islands.

Workers unloading produce bound for the Galapagos in Guayaquil, Ecuador

Workers unload produce at the current port for Galapagos in Guayaquil. It lacks security, proper inspection equipment and quarantine control procedures. © Ralph Lee Hopkins

AG: What is the timeline for the implementation and completion of the project? How much will it cost and who is paying for it?

Ideally the entire project would be completed in an additional five years, however, it is difficult to say with certainty, as we are already four years into the process. The total project cost is estimated at $40M and the Government of Ecuador will be picking up 95% of all costs.

AG: Why, in your mind, is the Galapagos worth preserving? Why should someone choose to support this project when there are so many pressing environmental problems in the world right now?

MB: Clearly I am biased, however, if you were to look at the majority of the worlds’ archipelagos, I do not think there is one that possesses such high levels of endemism and that is as well preserved as the Galapagos. The Islands are truly unique – from the marine iguana, to the Galapagos penguin to the fabled finch. They all merit our best efforts in their protection.

AG: What are some of the other initiatives that WildAid has been involved in the Galapagos and why?

MB: As I mentioned earlier, we focus efforts on stopping illegal fishing with the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR). At 133,000 sq. km – equal to the size of New York State – the sheer size of the GMR poses challenges to authorities. WildAid has introduced electronic monitoring systems, such as satellite monitoring transceivers, radars and high power video cameras, to assist authorities in the surveillance and interception of illegal fishers in these highly productive waters. Besides electronics, we work with the GNPS in the maintenance of patrol vessels and the prosecution of illegal fishing. As fishing pressures are stronger than ever, it is vital we protect these waters for the multitude of migratory species that are in transit and those native to its rocky shores as well.