By Inti Keith, Marine Invasive Species Project Coordinator at the Charles Darwin Foundation.
There are milestone moments in all our professional lives. Co-hosting the first International Workshop on Marine Bioinvasions of Tropical Island Ecosystems this past February as a PhD student will certainly be one of mine. The Galapagos Marine Reserve is a World Heritage Site, renowned for the underwater landscapes that provide a home to an amazing array of sea creatures. The very nature of the ocean currents, plus the marine traffic to and from Galapagos, also means that the Reserve is at constant risk of being invaded by potentially dangerous sea plants and animals that could forever alter the delicate marine ecosystem.
The work I am undertaking for my thesis on how to minimize the negative impacts of invasive species is at the forefront of creating management tools specific to the needs of Galapagos. To be able to interact with experts from around the world — and especially the Ecuadorian authorities — helped me appreciate the importance of what we are working toward in Galapagos.
The workshop hosted an impressive array of participants from Europe, the USA, Central America, the Caribbean, and New Zealand who shared their knowledge on detection, identification, prevention, management, control, and eradication methods of marine invasives with local authorities and institutions, including the Galapagos National Park Directorate, the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency, and the Ecuadorian Navy and Port Authorities. It was important to count on the participation of the institutions from mainland Ecuador, such as the Oceanographic branch of the Ecuadorian Navy, that are active in such issues across the sea and where invaders potentially arrive first.
I started diving in the Marine Reserve 10 years ago, and still remember the first time I saw a school of hammerheads swim past and the first time a playful sea lion imitated my movements. I vividly recall the colorful reef fish swimming in and out of the corals. To be able to now participate in the process toward a solid foundation for protecting these very waters is both personally and professionally rewarding. It is experiences like these that underscore the special nature of the marine realm of Galapagos — and the importance of protecting it from threats such as marine invasive species.
Many of the invaders are tiny — algae, seeds, fragments of plants, small fish — and easily transported due to ever expanding global trade, transport, and tourism. When species are transported from one region to another, they can often establish themselves, reproduce, and spread in a new region — competing with and displacing native species. Invasive species have been recognized for decades as the biggest threat to Galapagos ecosystems, and although many preventive and corrective measures have been applied to terrestrial problems, the marine environment has received relatively little attention to date. Luckily, this is changing thanks to the interest of international scientists and local government institutions that have started working together to prevent possible future invasions.
In 2012, I started working on the Marine Invasive Species Project at the Charles Darwin Foundation with funding from the Darwin Initiative (UK) and Galapagos Conservancy. A great example of pooling resources, knowledge, and experience, the project is a multi-institutional endeavor between the Galapagos National Park Directorate, the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency, the National Direction of Aquatic Spaces, the Ecuadorian Navy's Oceanographic Institute, and the Universities of Southampton and Dundee in the UK. Together, we expect to create protocols and methods to reduce the potential for the arrival of unwanted marine invaders and their negative impacts on marine biodiversity.
During the workshop, I had the opportunity to work side-by-side with scientists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, as well as recognized universities from around the world such as University of the Azores, Waikato University, Temple University, Charles Darwin University, Southampton University, and Dundee University. Many of their projects deal with similar issues, and the big question was how to adapt what we know to fit the needs of Galapagos — and determine the gaps that require further research.
The priority recommendation resulting from the workshop was to prevent the introduction of new marine species by only allowing boats with clean hulls into the Marine Reserve, rigorously enforced by diver inspections. This process starts long before the vessels arrive in Galapagos, and the next level of defense will be an early detection system by biological monitoring at both mainland Ecuadorian ports and within Galapagos. Rapid response plans are also being developed should new invasive species be detected. And, for the first time ever, an action plan to prevent the arrival of non-native species into the Marine Reserve will be created by the Charles Darwin Foundation and other participating institutions.
An exciting but troubling highlight came from a pre-workshop boat excursion to Tortuga and Academy Bays on Santa Cruz Island to sample the biofouling communities — tiny creatures that attach themselves to ships' hulls. This resulted in the first Galapagos record of the known invasive species Zoobotryon verticillatum (Spaghetti bryozoan; see photo above), with several other species identified as potentially new to the Islands.
Rapid response actions are an important part of the plan to be developed following workshop recommendations whenever habitat-altering invasive species such as these are detected. The action plan will set the stage for catching these often unnoticed invaders before they become established and wreak havoc in Galapagos marine ecosystems.
It was an amazing week overall, with much information shared and lessons learned. The input by local and national authorities — bringing the experience of both science and management experts together — highlighted the importance of working toward a common goal if we are going to succeed in preventing any unnatural changes to the unique marine life of Galapagos. I especially wish to thank Dr. James Carlton of Williams College in Connecticut who I helped to organize the workshop, and a special thanks to my PhD supervisors, Prof. Terry Dawson (University of Dundee) and Dr. Ken Collins (University of Southampton). It was truly an honor to share with the other participants the results of the Charles Darwin Foundation research, the issues facing Galapagos, and the visionary efforts of the Government of Ecuador to protect Galapagos.
Inti Keith is currently a PhD candidate and is the Marine Invasive Species Project Coordinator for the Charles Darwin Foundation. She has been working in Galapagos for the past 10 years and has much experience with the marine ecosystems in the Marine Reserve. Inti has participated in a number of different projects throughout the years involving sharks, turtles, and ecological monitoring.