Increasing tourism and the spread of marine invasive non-native species is threatening the unique plant and marine life around the Galapagos Islands.
UK scientists from the Universities of Southampton and Dundee are currently investigating the extent of the problem following a grant from the UK Government's Darwin Initiative, which aims to protect biodiversity and promote sustainability around the world.
UK Environment Minister Richard Benyon said: "The UK has played a major role in supporting the establishment of the Galapagos Marine Reserve and our Darwin Initiative has funded a range of important projects protecting and enhancing both marine and terrestrial wildlife.
"Invasive non-native species can cause huge damage to local ecosystems and I am delighted that action is being taken to monitor this threat."
Project leader Dr Ken Collins, Ocean and Earth Science of University of Southampton based at the National Oceanography Centre said: "Tourism is partly to blame for the influx of invasive non-native species, due to the huge rise in ships and planes from mainland Ecuador bringing in pests. In recent years, it was realised that cargo ships were carrying disease-infected mosquitoes, which were attracted to the ship's bright white deck lights. Simply changing from conventional filament bulbs to yellow sodium lamps, along with fumigation in the hold has substantially reduced the threat.
"We are trying to protect marine biodiversity by identifying newly arrived species to the Galapagos, assessing if they have the potential to compete for space and overcome other species of algae and native corals."
White coral, which has already been reported off the mainland Ecuador coast (600 miles away), is also causing anxiety. It could easily hitch a lift on the frequent vessels supplying Galapagos tourists and residents. Already, two new algae species have been found in the Galapagos Marine Reserve, a World Heritage Site.
Another species causing concern and which has the potential to overwhelm natural populations is the Indian Ocean lionfish. This fish colonised the Caribbean through accidental release from an aquarium and has spread through the entire Caribbean in the last decade. Its rapacious appetite has led to the decimation of coral reef fish populations in the southern Caribbean. Lionfish can consume prey up to two thirds of their own length and data shows that they can eat 20 small wrasses in 30 minutes. Their stomachs can expand by up to 30 times in volume when consuming a large catch. The Panama Canal could provide a short cut to Ecuador's Pacific coast and then the Galapagos.
One of Ken Collin's PhD students is Fadilah Ali, who is at the University of Southampton studying how the lionfish is eating its way through coral reef fish populations in the southern Caribbean. For over a hundred years Southampton, one the UK's busiest ports has been receiving marine hitchhikers from around the world, changing the entire balance of its underwater marine plants and animals. One example is the Pacific Oyster, which is being studied in the Solent region by another of Ken's PhD students Steff Deane.
Prof Terry Dawson, SAGES Chair in Global Environmental Change at Dundee, added, "Invasive species are becoming one of the greatest threats to biodiversity on a global scale. The Galapagos islands are particularly vulnerable due to the fact that much of the indigenous wildlife have evolved over millions of years in the absence of predators, competition, pests and diseases, which makes them very susceptible to the negative impacts of aggressive non-native species.
"We are very pleased to have Inti Keith, one of the staff of the Charles Darwin Research Station, registered with the University of Dundee to study for her PhD on this important topic. Her extensive local knowledge of the marine environment of the Galapagos Islands gives us a head start in developing the research to tackle the issue.
The team have recently returned from the Galapagos, where they met the Ecuadorian Navy and DIRNEA, the national maritime authority, to discuss control measures and helped take part in the first underwater survey of the Galapagos capital port.
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