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The oil tanker, Jessica, created the largest oil spill in Galapagos' history in 2001. (Copyrighted photo by Heidi Snell)

Protecting Galapagos now and in the future

Biosecurity involves the application of policies and systems to protect a specific area or population from biological harm. Traditionally biosecurity, often under the more restrictive title of quarantine, has primarily been focused on agriculture and related industries. Today the concept is understood to include other major sectors of the economy and environment, and to engage the broad community. Biosecurity now encompasses prevention and mitigation from diseases, pests, and bioterrorism, and has major economic and social implications for the following sectors:

  • Environment and biodiversity (both terrestrial and marine ecosystems)
  • Agriculture (animals and plants)
  • Forestry (native forests and plantations)
  • Fisheries (marine, freshwater, and aquaculture)
  • Tourism (tourists and the environment)
  • Water supplies
  • Amenity and recreation

In Galapagos, biosecurity measures have been introduced in an attempt to ensure that the ecosystems and ecologies sustaining the native flora and fauna as well as human communities are maintained. As such, biosecurity is the business and responsibility of the entire Galapagos community. The primary concern is the introduction and establishment of aggressive invasive species, including diseases, pests, and dominant competitors and predators.

Biosecurity can be divided into two major areas – prevention and mitigation. Key components of biosecurity in Galapagos include: 1) inspection and quarantine system (prevention); 2) control and eradication of both newly arrived and established invasive species (mitigation); and 3) building community awareness, support, and participation for these programs (prevention and mitigation).

The Galapagos Inspection and Quarantine System (SICGAL, its acronym in Spanish), together with with efforts to build community awareness, acceptance, and participation, represent the primary barrier against future biological introductions. SICGAL was initiated in May 1999 and formally established in June 2000. A program of the Ecuadorian Service for Agricultural Health, SICGAL involves a high degree of inter-institional coordination and cooperation, with the goal of preventing new species and organisms from being introduced into the Galapagos Islands. Recent additions to this program include the development of procedures manuals for inspectors and technicians, protocols for fumigating planes and boats, and a risk analysis methodology to evaluate what products can be imported to Galapagos. An early warning system was also implemented on the inhabited islands, with technicians trained to monitor the ports of entry, agriculture zones, and airplanes for the arrival of high-risk pests. To prevent the establishment of new, dangerous invasive species, such as mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus, a multi-institutional rapid response system and team were established and contingency plans developed.

SICGAL involves inspections both on the continent and in Galapagos of flights, cargo ships, passengers, and cargo. The system, however, is hampered by inadequate funding, staffing, and training, at a time of increasing numbers of flights, ships, and inspection units. Recommendations for improving SICGAL to ensure prevention of future introductions include:

  • Implement a training and professional education program for inspectors
  • Reform the legal framework of SICGAL and include penalties that will discourage infractions
  • Restructure the system to better respond to increasing demands
  • Ensure adequate funding for SICGAL to operate at the required level

Community involvement is critical in invasive species management. Three committees were established to help combat the threat of introduced species: the Agricultural Health and SICGAL Committee (in Santa Cruz) and two Inter-institutional Introduced Species Committees (in San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz). Communication campaigns are used to reach wider audiences, including the use of pamphlets, posters, and numerous television and radio spots. Local teachers receive training to teach concepts related to introduced species and more than 12,000 schoolchildren have participated in events to learn about invasive species impacts, with many actively participating in invasive species projects, such as invertebrate monitoring.

When the inspection and quarantine system fails to prevent the arrival of an invasive species, eradication before it can become established is the next best method in the biosecurity arsenal. This requires a constant flow of information between the Galapagos community and the appropriate research and management institutions. An awareness campaign has improved this connection, with many more members of the community providing information and sometimes specimens of insects and other pests to the authorities. This close working relationship between the community and the authorities is the key to the success of early response and eradication programs.

The primary methods to mitigate the damage already done by invasive species that are successfully established are control and eradication, the most costly of the prevention/mitigation techniques in the biosecurity system. Controls and eradications have been carried out primarily by the Galapagos National Park Service in collaboration with the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF). Project Isabela, completed in 2006, was one of the most ambitious and ultimately successful eradication projects ever attempted anywhere in the world. It focused on the eradication of goats and donkeys on northern Isabela, and goat, pigs, and donkeys on Santiago. Techniques for eradicating invasive species such as fire ants, cats, and plants have also been developed and implemented. Many Galapagos ecosystems are beginning to recover. Teams of Galapagos residents who were trained during these projects are now applying these new eradication techniques throughout Galapagos. The methods developed in Galapagos are also now being applied in other parts of the world.

A key component of successful response is knowledge of the threat and the ability to prioritize research and management efforts. Considerable groundwork has been completed to identify major invasive species threats in Galapagos and to learn more about how these species interact with Galapagos species. Inventories of the urban and agricultural zones identified over 500 new introduced plants and invertebrates. As a result of these surveys, the reference collections have been expanded and databases on introduced vertebrates, plants, and invertebrates, including their biology, distribution, and possible control, are now available to decision-makers. Tools have also been developed to identify which species pose the greatest risk to Galapagos and where in the archipelago immediate management actions are required.

Effective biosecurity protects the environment, human health, and the economy, as well as providing a safe, enjoyable life for the Galapagos community and visitors. It is important for everyone who lives and visits Galapagos to understand its importance.

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