Combating Marine Invasive Species in Galapagos and the Eastern Tropical Pacific

November 30, 2017

By Inti Keith, Leader of the Marine Invasive Species Program at the Charles Darwin Foundation.

Inti Keith Dive Team

It’s often a surprise to learn that people live in Galapagos and that the Islands are no longer as isolated as they once were. In my 13 years here, I have watched tourism in the towns grow, accompanied by an increase in services to supply the corresponding needs. The ever-growing demand for cargo brought by ship from the continent and the transport of goods between islands have connected Galapagos to the rest of the world in a way unimagined years ago. This increase in cargo raises the risk of introduction of species from other regions. The isolation in which the Galapagos animals and plants evolved leaves them unprepared to compete with new species arriving unnaturally as hitchhikers on boats. The continuous increase in marine traffic opens the door ever-wider to the arrival of species that could impact and alter the marine ecosystems.

In recent months, I’ve been excited to be a part of Galapagos and Costa Rica joining forces to combat the shared problem of these marine invasive species: algae, invertebrates, and in some cases fish. Fish that are introduced to a new region can quickly devastate and transform healthy natural ecosystems. A collaboration between local, national, and international experts resulted in a call for research on marine invasives to ensure the protection of the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR) and the rest of the Eastern Tropical Pacific region.

Invasive marine organism

An invasive crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) in the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

The Eastern Tropical Pacific region extends from southern Mexico to northern Peru and includes the Galapagos Archipelago. It is considered one of the most productive tropical ocean regions of the world. Recently the countries of Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica established the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor initiative to facilitate research and increase long-term protection of this region, which includes not only the GMR, but also Cocos Island National Park, Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary, Gorgona Natural National Park, and Coiba National Park, covering nearly two million square kilometers. The Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) was appointed to lead the science group. As the leader of the CDF’s Marine Invasive Species project, I represent Galapagos in meetings and workshops, and have conducted fieldwork to highlight the threats and impacts of marine invasive species. I also work closely with our Costa Rican partners, advising them on a monitoring program based on methodologies used in Galapagos, and providing training guidelines for local park wardens.

Our Marine Invasive Species team has used several different methodologies to identify non-native species present in the GMR, and to determine where they originated from and the impacts they can cause. We have discovered that most likely adhere themselves to a surface, such as the hull of a boat. This finding elevated research into marine traffic to the top of our list.

Fortunately, Galapagos is one of the few places in the world that has a marine biosecurity system designed to prevent marine organisms from being introduced to the Marine Reserve. All boats must arrive with a clean hull and are inspected by the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency divers on arrival. In order to prevent or intercept new introductions, the Marine Invasive Species project has provided training on inspection techniques and species identification.

Diver scientists

The author recording notes in the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

In collaboration with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, we have identified a list of non-native species already present in the GMR. Technicians from the participating government institutions and I have had the amazing experience of working with the Smithsonian taxonomists, learning how to identify these species, researching their origin, and determining how they could have been introduced.

Knowing that my work may be instrumental in protecting marine worlds provides great satisfaction. A personal dream was also recently fulfilled when I explored the underwater world of Cocos Island National Park. Jacque Cousteau called it “the most beautiful island in the world”. On my first research dive in the warm, clear waters, I was joined by colorful reef fish and schools of hammerhead sharks. I visited several sites, accompanied by park wardens, who were very interested to learn more about the project and the types of species I was looking for. The trip provided a preliminary list of non-native species to investigate, to determine their origin. As a result of this trip, CDF, Cocos Island National Park, and the Friends of Cocos Island will collaborate to expand research in marine invasive species in that area.

The Marine Invasives Research Team in Galapagos.

The Marine Invasives Research Team in Galapagos.

Galapagos Conservancy has supported CDF’s Marine Invasive Species Program since its inception in 2012. Investigation and early intervention before a crisis is a shared goal. Without the commitment of our donors, such important work simply would not happen.

Footnote: Partners in the Galapagos Marine Invasive Species project include the Charles Darwin Foundation, the Galapagos National Park Directorate, the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency, the Ecuadorian Navy, and the Oceanography Department of the Ecuadorian Navy, with the collaboration of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and the University of Southampton.

Inti KeithInti Keith, PhD, is a Senior Marine Biologist at the Charles Darwin Foundation; she leads the Marine Invasive Species Program in collaboration with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), as well as the long-term Subtidal Ecological Monitoring Project in the GMR. Inti has worked in several different projects, including shark tagging and sea turtle monitoring, before doing her PhD on Marine Invasive Species in the GMR. Her interests lie in understanding the current status of the GMR and evaluating the impacts non-native species can have on marine biodiversity, ecosystem services, and the health of the GMR. She is interested in the connectivity that exists between the different Marine Protected Areas in the region, which stimulated her participation in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor initiative (CMAR). Inti has strong collaborations with the University of Southampton and the National Oceanography Center (NOC), Williams College, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), and SERC.

All photos © Inti Keith.

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