The Galapagos Islands, which were the founding of Charles Darwin’s theories on natural selection, are facing a new threat – plastic waste.
UK’s ITV network has revealed how the plastic pollution in the surrounding oceans is now a plaything for sea lions.
Since the middle of the last century, this archipelago 600 miles from the coast of Ecuador has been protected from the excesses of human influence.
Around 97% of the islands are off limits to humans as tourists, even locals, have to be supervised when visiting areas within the National Park itself.
The wildlife has made unique adaptations to the volcanic wilderness, but a new threat – completely human-made- is rearing its head.
Seals are playing with plastic bottles as toys and the Galápagos finches are weaving plastic fibres into their nests. Meanwhile, Hermit crabs have been found moving into plastic bottle caps instead of shells.
However, the Galápagos is fighting back with a joint international research project between local experts and specialists in studying marine at the University of Exeter.
The project is hoping to be the first to analyse the total impact of plastic on Galápagos and its unique wildlife, but also establish how to hold back the tide of plastic trash.
The researchers are counting large pieces of plastic on Galápagos’ beaches as well as sifting the sand for microplastics — fragments smaller than 5mm — that may pose the most harm to wildlife.
They’re also surveying currents, and tide patterns, to model where plastics are coming from. Early evidence suggests most of the plastic is from mainland South America, or from the great Pacific itself.
Most are being washed up on the islands’ windward beaches. Now clean-up efforts are being focused there.
Conservationists believe it is time to review regulations in ports that charge high fees for disposing of foreign vessels’ waste. This fact alone may be encouraging dumping at sea.
For its part, Galápagos has persuaded the Ecuadorian government to back its move to phase out the single-use plastic. They’ve banned plastic bags and straws on the islands.
Now they want to do the same for styrofoam cups and trays and, ultimately, a return scheme for plastic bottles themselves.