Oil and blood stain the waters of the Galapagos Islands

Posted: 23 February 2001

Author: Jill Kincaid

On January 17.2001, an oil tanker ran aground in the Galapagos Islands threatening its unique and pristine environment. After a flurry of international concern, the story disappeared from the news pages. Here, Jill Kinkaid reports from the Galapagos on what really happened and on the continuing threat to this very special part of the planet.

An emerald bay with lava rock and sandy shores. Sleepy streets. Men on benches and sidewalks, peering toward the concrete, away from the sea lions lounging in the sand, playing in the water. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

And, an oil tanker containing 250,000 gallons of fuel sat like a bomb stuck in the bay on a rocky reef. No one appeared to be looking that direction, nor to be concerned or interested.

One would never know that just two months ago violence and terrorism reigned in this quiet village as local fishermen took possession of Galapagos National Park offices. They stole and destroyed government and personal property out of protest over the end of the lobster fishing season.

Shark massacre

Meanwhile Jessica is sadly singing an eerie song under the pressure of the waves pushing at her stern. A moment of silence and stillness then once again the violent toss of the ship upon the rocks as those aboard including her two small guardian dogs hold on for their lives while the bell at her bow announces once again the waves have hit. The captain, very sad, has not eaten or slept for days. He loves the Galapagos Islands, is worried about the damage to the animals and the people and feels horrible about his mistake. He says he wants to die.

Jessica arrived the same day that two suitcases ready to travel to the continent were halted due to the discovery of their contents. Two hundred and thirty five shark fins destined for buyers around the world, but ultimately to supply the Asian peoples of shark fin soup.

At 50 dollars a pound local fishermen find little problem in killing sea lion pups for bait and discarding dead carcasses of sea turtles, sea birds such as the rare waved albatross and blue footed boobies that are the incidental by catch. How many sharks had their fins cut off while alive, their bodies tossed back to the sea? Finless. Bleeding. Dying.

Illegal shark fins destined for the Asian market.© Godfrey MerlenThe tanker Jessica is here at the request of the Galapagos Explorer, a large tourist vessel waiting quietly in the bay. The dense bunker fuel aboard the tanker was meant for her, the only vessel in the Islands that uses this heavy black fuel.

With the threat of these fuels entering the waters of the Galapagos, the National Park convinced the Ecuadorian Government to send the National Strike Team of the United States Coast Guard to arrive 9:00 am Friday morning. At 11:00 am Friday, Jessica began to release a steady stream of black tears and like the blood of the Galapagos sharks it goes unnoticed. Where is the National Strike Team of the United States Coast Guard? According to the Government of Ecuador an expenditure of 350,000 to 500,000 dollars could not be authorized.

Dumping oil

The Galapagos Explorer was asked to take its fuel off Jessica. Galapagos Explorer refuses. The fuel could be contaminated, she mysteriously disappears.

Petro Comercial had kindly offered to sell the fuel at full price to those who would risk their lives to pump it off the ship. They removed very little fuel themselves, not more than 24,000 gallons.

Many believe that if the oil had been offered to the local people, free, they would have left their benches and removed it with incredible speed. However this offer did not occur and only a few benches were vacated by those being paid to help clean up the oil that was instead allowed to flow into the bay.

Saturday. Bay full of oil, stained pelicans, curious young sea lions playing in the thick black toxic liquid. Children on the beach, in and out of the water. Parents looking on out of curiosity seeming oblivious to the danger of the heavy fuels coating the sea water.

The Minister of the Environment, a representative from Petro Comercial, a representative of the Charles Darwin Research Station and two representatives from the Galapagos National Park went on Sunday's flight to view the flow of the oil on the water.

JessicaThe tanker, Jessica, spilling oil into Galapagos waters© Godfrey MerlenThe man from Petro Comercial saw very little if any oil. For others, there were tears of sadness at the site below. Oil on the coasts of the islands of Santa Fe and Santa Cruz and more on its way. A last look at Jessica by air before landing. The containment fence is disconnected, trailing out in a long straight line while black oil is everywhere to be seen.

Sunday afternoon after the overview flight and three days of oil pouring into the bay, the Minister of the Environment called the continent to annouce that there is an emergency in the Galapagos Islands. When will an emergency be called to save the sharks?

Galapagos National Park director and crews worked to restore the barrier, apply dispersents and collect the heavy oils. Fishermen were paid to work in this effort. Charles Darwin Research Station crews worked monitoring oil on the coasts. At 4pm on Sunday the National Strike Team of the United States Coast Guard arrived and locals swarmed the airport to see the North Americans. Too late and too dangerous to remove oil now with two thirds of the ships deck in the water. Will it also be too late for the sharks or too dangerous for those wanting to protect them?

Mysterious oil slicks were found near the coasts of Isabela and Floreana Islands. Galapagos National Park Service patrol launches took forty, fifty-gallon barrels of black tar from the waters and coast of Floreana. Marine iguanas and sea lions were found covered in oil. Those that could be captured were cleaned. Unfortunately the black tar meant certain death to the marine birds that were found stuck in it. For the few that were found alive the stress of cleaning tar an inch thick off the feathers proved to be fatal.

Specialists of the Strike Team suspect that these oil spills are unrelated to Jessica. Analysis of samples taken will reveal the truth. Some tour boat operators saw the oil spill disaster as an opportunity to dump their own oils into the waters of the Galapagos Islands.

Contaminated fish from oil spill© Godfrey Merlen

It may be too soon to tell the lasting damage from Jessica's presence in the Galapagos, however the Islands continue to be threatened by tour boat operators willing to dump their oils into the ocean and onto the shores at the sacrifice of the health of themselves, their families and their guests, the lives of the creatures that their visitors come to see, and what makes their livelihood.

The blood of the Galapagos sharks continues to spill into the waters. The fishermen, buyers and consumers of shark fins severely threaten the most pristine marine area in the world. They have already depleted the populations of Galapagos sea cucumbers. Scientists report that another season of harvest will eliminate the fishery for a minimum of 50 years if the species manages to survive at all.

And what of Jessica? Most would like to see her removed from the bay. Many think her presence is ugly in the natural environment. Or perhaps, in truth she represents a reminder of humanity at its weakest.

So far all efforts to move Jessica have been unsuccessful. Despite the oils, reef fish moved in immediately after her arrival to Wreck Bay. When it appeared that more oil would reach Santa Fe and Santa Cruz, nature changed her currents and winds as if the islands were protected by an unseen force.

What of that unseen force driving the harvestors, buyers and consumers of shark fins taken from The Galapagos Islands?

Dr Jill Kincaid, a specialist in holistic nutrition was a witness to the events she describes. Hers is a personal viewpoint.

  • UPDATE: The Galapagos Marine Reserve was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO on December 13, 2001. At 133,000 sq km, the Reserve around the famous islands is the second largest in the world (largest in the developing world), and 16 per cent of the resident species are found nowhere else. It is home to a wide variety of sharks (including whale sharks and hammerheads), rays, sea lions and penguins.

    The Reserve recently withstood a constitutional challenge from the tuna industry and remains closed to industrial fishing, but there are regular incursions by Ecuadorian, Costa Rican and Colombian fishing vessels catching sharks for their fins and tuna.

    Local "artisanal" fishing legally targets lobsters, sea cucumbers and groundfish. However, as sea cucumber populations and the global market price crashed simultaneously, the pressure to open up longlining has increased dramatically. Longlining is an industrial technique that often causes high bycatch of sea birds, sharks, rays and sea lions. Moreover, direct exploitation of sea lions has become evident. In May 2001, 10 sea lions were discovered killed for their genitalia.

    At the year's end, the owner of the fuel involved in the Jessica oil spill had still refused to pay any of the clean-up costs, and the Park Service remains financially crippled by these costs, according to the international conservation group WildAid.

    WildAid has called for more international support and announced the creation of the Galapagos Forever Fund. It is seeking to raise a $20 million endowment, which would generate $1,000,000 annually to assist the Galapagos National Park Service in monitoring and protecting the Reserve, to work with the local communities and to explore alternative employment for fishermen in the Islands.

    For more information contact: WildAid