LETTER FROM SEA SHEPHERD Galapagos in deep trouble

Posted: 25 October 2007

Author: Captain Paul Watson

It was the last day of July 2007 and the Sea Shepherd ship Farley Mowat was preparing to depart from the Enchanted Isles of the Galapagos, when Captain Paul Watson, Founder and President of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Co-Founder of Greenpeace, wrote this graphic letter.

Captain Paul Watson
Captain Paul Watson
This amazing place was described in the movie Master and Commander by Captain Jack Aubrey as the "far side of the world." That, of course, was in the early 19th Century. Now dozens of jet flights a week bring more and more tourists and workers to these once remote and lonely Pacific islands situated a 1,000 kilometres from the coast of Ecuador.

When we arrived here some 8 years ago to begin our patrols for poachers, there was only one place on Santa Cruz Island to make a phone call. Today there are dozens of internet cafes, and seemingly everyone has a cell phone.

Despite the Special Law for the Galapagos prohibiting more cars, the automobile population has jumped from 700 vehicles to over 1500 and there are actually traffic jams at rush hour. And despite the fact that dogs and cats are banned from the islands, we have assisted in the spaying and neutering of over 4,000 animals. The escalating cat population is devastating native birds who have never known predators and roving dogs have mauled and killed hundreds of marine iguanas.

These islands are in deep trouble with more and more people, more eco-tourism and more resource exploitation. The corrupt Ecuadorian Navy protects the poachers and the quest for the dollar is rapidly replacing traditional concerns for conservation.

Under siege

The Galapagos are under siege from the sheer numbers of humans wishing to overfish or to love the islands to death through eco-tourism.

Galapagos giant tortoise
Galapagos giant tortoise
Galapagos giant tortoise. Photo © UNESCO / Evergreen
For eight years we have intercepted poachers, cleaned up oil spills, neutered dogs and spayed cats, confiscated longlines, collected garbage from the beaches and fought corruption and violent fishermen. It is a protracted seemingly endless struggle.

But we have been strengthened by an Ecuadorian Presidential decree that recognizes the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society as one of the organizations empowered to protect the Galapagos and we are now in full partnership, not just with the Galapagos National Park, but also with the Ecuadorian National Police.

In the last few days I was informed by Planktos, the group that wants to dump iron dust in the waters off Galapagos that they will not be coming to the area, at least for some time. They don't want a confrontation with us.

So with their cancellation of their dangerous plans we are free to leave on another mission.

Poachers and smugglers

Tomorrow we sail off to patrol the Galapagos Corridor between these islands and the Panama Canal. This is the area where illegal shark finners operate and our mission over the next ten days is to search them out and shut them down.

We will be patrolling the waters of the Galapagos National Park Marine Reserve of Ecuador, the Malpelo Island National Park Marine Reserve off the coast of Colombia and the international waters in between. It's a thousand miles to the Panama Canal and we will deal with any poachers we find on the way.

Galapagos land iguana
Galapagos land iguana
Galapagos land iguana. Photo © Galapagos Conservation Trust
We will leave the Galapagos behind with a month and a half long series of interceptions. We found and confiscated a three mile longline and released numerous sharks, fish, mantas and turtles from the lethal hooks. We raided three shark fin smuggling operations on the mainland and confiscated and destroyed over 25,000 worth of illegal fins. We also raided an illegal sea cucumber operation and seized and destroyed over 92,000 sea cucumbers to prevent them being sold on the Asian market. We put five poachers and smugglers behind bars and we cost the poachers over US$750,000 in losses.

We also exposed the illegal activities of the Mayor of Vilamil on Isabela Island. This man cut down a stand of mangroves to build a dock for eco-tourism boats. He also bulldozed a beach and destroyed thousands of marine iguana eggs and he has been illegally breeding dogs. Our evidence resulted in an indictment against him by the National Police and he fled the islands to escape arrest.

It has been a productive visit this year with the Farley Mowat.

Shark protectors

Of course only my one ship and crew will be leaving. Staying in Galapagos is our Galapagos Director Sean O'Hearn and his team of shark protectors and conservationists. Our ship the Sirenian remains in the Marine Reserve and is now approaching her 8th year of operations and has intercepted over seventy illegal fishing operations since 2000.

Ten years ago I said that if we can't save the Galapagos we will not be able to save any place on Earth. Towards this end we continue to hold the ground although it sometimes feels like every step forward forces us to take two steps backwards.

But we must stand our ground and this is the place where we have drawn our line in the sand.

We need to secure another patrol boat to jointly operate with the National Environmental Police. We need to build a Latin American Environmental Police Training Centre on Santa Cruz island. We need to humanely and non lethally remove all dogs, cats and goats and other exotics.

We need to limit eco-tourism numbers and we need to stabilize the human population on the islands. We need to bring poaching under control and to address and put an end to corruption by the Ecuadorian Navy. In short we have a great deal to do and little time to do it. It is a long and dangerous campaign. Already our lives have been threatened by the industrial fishermen of Manta, the centre for commercial fishing operations on the Ecuadorian coast. But we cannot be deterred.

Sacred place

This sacred place is known as evolution's workshop, the place where Charles Darwin saw the truth of nature, where some of the most unique animal species in the world dwell both on land and in the waters. This is a very special place, a World Heritage site that we must make every effort to defend and protect.

I took a walk today on the eve of our departure. I walked away from the town of Puerto Ayora, past the park offices, strolled through the cacti and past a couple of giant tortoises munching on vegetation. I made my way down to the black lava beach and found myself face to face with dozens of blackish impish looking marine iguanas. A couple of them snorted salt from their flaring nostrils, and as I moved all their eyes followed me in unison.

I sat down on a black jagged stone and watched the surf pound against the rocks. I saw blue footed boobies dive like arrows into the azure sea and brown pelicans glide across the water in groups, their wing tips almost touching the moving water. I looked up and saw red-throated frigate birds soaring in the thermals above me and on the rocks around me, blood red crabs scurrying in and out of the surf.

Frigate bird
Frigate bird
Galapagos frigate bird. Photo © Galapagos Conservation Trust
What a magnificent place! But the hordes of humans keep coming. I feel like I don't belong here myself and only the fact that we are fighting to protect this place gives me justification for being here. These islands should be set apart from mankind, the one place on Earth where evolution should be allowed to proceed without our damnable interference.

In addition to the cars and the dogs and cats, I have recently seen Mormons strutting down the streets in their out of place black suits, snotty nosed teenage missionaries bearing the title Elder on their breasts. Bringing the ridiculous philosophy of Joseph Smith to the one place that stands as proof positive that the idea of a monkey god hominid in the sky who created humans as divine legends in their own minds is just simply ridiculous. I watched one of the "Elders" attempted to stomp a little lava lizard that dashed across the sidewalk in front of him. He's lucky he missed or I would have had him up on charges.

Denouncing Darwin

One of the Park guides was recently found to be denouncing Darwin on his tour, citing that the islands were created only 2,000 years ago by God. One University Professor was shocked to hear her guide preaching such nonsense to her University of Oregon students. We don't have to be in Kansas anymore to hear such rubbish it appears.

The road from Baltra to Puerto Ayora is littered with the crushed and mangled bodies of hundreds of little birds run down each day by racing buses and cabs shuttling tourists, some of whom are bird watchers, to their place to "enjoy" nature.

When I first arrived here, the little Darwin finches and even the boobies would alight upon an out stretched hand and marine iguanas basked in to sun on the sidewalks of the sleepy town. Not anymore - those days are not returning, not with the cancerous growth of civilization creeping across the park land and lethal hooks and lines, nets and spears penetrating and extinguishing life beneath the surface of the blue seas.

The other night I actually saw a tractor pulling a train through town. Each car was filled with tourists and each car was in the shape of a Walt Disney character. In wonderment I pondered just what sort of person would travel all the way to the Galapagos to ride through the street in a Mickey Mouse mobile?

And even here in this remote place wildlife cannot escape the terror of fireworks or being stoned by kids or being splattered across the pavement as road kill by uncaring drivers.

Diving at Gordon Rocks or Darwin and Wolf Islands is not anything like it was only seven years ago. So many sharks have perished, some 300,000 a year is the estimate, slaughtered to provide overly priced soup to Asians half a world away. So many sea lions have been slaughtered for their penis bones so that some impotent man in China who has obviously never heard of Viagra can use it as some sort of placebo to get an erection for the purpose of creating even more sharkfin-soup-eating-seal-penis-sucking hominids.

My eyes blur a little as I sit upon that dark black stone. I see a lava lizard scamper across the rocks. She stops, looks at me in amusement and goes about her business. This is her place not mine. I would so love to sail away for good and leave all of these wonderful species in peace in a world without us but I can only do so once we have purged their killers from these islands.

We cannot leave these innocent and profoundly unique creatures to the blood and profit lust of the merciless poachers and the sneaky smugglers, the corrupt politicians and the shady military shysters. We are honour bound to stay and defend our non-human clients and so Sea Shepherd will stay until we win the right for these islands to survive or until we are violently expelled by the forces of darkness.

We must hold the line in the Galapagos.

Captain Paul Watson is Founder and President of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Co-Founder of the The Greenpeace Foundation and of Greenpeace International. He is a former Director of the Sierra Club and Director of The Farley Mowat Institute and of www.harpseals.org. He is a Working Partner with the Ecuadorian National Environmental Police and the Galapagos National Park,Master/Commander of the M/Y "Robert Hunter",Commander of the M/Y "Farley Mowat".