Charles Darwin Research Station closed sign

Late last week we learned that the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS), which is operated by the Charles Darwin Foundation, may close permanently by the end of the year due to a financial shortfall and an ongoing feud with the municipality of Puerto Ayora, where it is located. The station is the oldest, largest and best known research institution in the islands and plays a critical role in Galapagos conservation. It is also one of the most popular visitor sites in the islands. Today, the station’s General Assembly will vote on whether to close the station due to lack of funding.

At the center of the issue is the newly refurbished and expanded CDRS gift shop, which opened in February and was shut down by the municipality in July, presumably in response to complaints from local shop owners who fear competition from the store. It was reportedly on track to earn $400,000 by the end of the year and was part of a long-term strategy to generate unrestricted funds for the station, which is mostly dependent on grants and donations to meet its $3 million annual operating budget.

The station has struggled to make ends meet in the past. One problem is that many of the big donations it receives are earmarked for specific conservation and research projects by donors and can’t be used to cover general operating expenses, such as salaries for administrative staff, internet, water, electricity and maintenance.

CDF Exectutive Director Swen Lorenz, who has been at the helm of the organization since 2011 and comes from a successful background in international finance, has made a valiant effort to cut costs and raise more money since he took the reins in 2011. He hoped that the store, which sells mainly Ecuadorian products, would help put the station on sounder financial footing in the long run.

In a recent interview, Lorenz contended that they had received proper legal advice and claims that, “any significant delay in re-opening the shop may force the permanent closure of the research station before the end of 2014.” The Foundation accuses local authorities of violating several national laws in shutting down the store.

Municipality spokesman Daniel B. Proaño claims that the CDRS changed the original concept of the store from a small shop selling Darwin Foundation souvenirs to “a commercial one without the proper legal basis.”

An article last week on the website of Science Magazine said that Lorenz believes that the government of Ecuador should rescue the organization and that they are hoping one of their major benefactors may yet bail them out of this difficult situation.

The permanent closing of the CDRS could likely prove to be disastrous for scientific research in the Galapagos and we hope that the two sides will come to an agreement soon and that the station will stay open. Resident and visiting scientists work on some of the most difficult and important issues affecting the islands, including combatting invasive species and habitat restoration.  Recently, for example, the CDRS has spearheaded a successful initiative to hand rear critically endangered mangrove finch chicks and release them back into the wild. The mangrove finch, like many other bird species in the islands, has been decimated by an invasive species of fly whose larvae feed upon nestlings.

We will let you know whether or not the General Assembly votes to close the station when we learn more.