Issue of July, 14, 2002
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Iguanas Dying En Masse in Galapagos
By Kintto Lucas

A second oil spill is threatening Ecuador's Galapagos islands, while the mortality rate among its marine iguanas has risen alarmingly, blamed on an earlier spill in 2001.

QUITO, (Tierramérica).- An estimated 62 percent of marine iguanas on one of the Galapagos islands in Ecuador died as a result of a January 2001 spill by an oil tanker, reported a study released in early July, which coincided with a new incident in which 7,500 liters of diesel fuel were dumped off the coast of the archipelago.

The latest spill took place on Jul 4 when the tanker Taurus dumped fuel into the sea while it was shaken by strong currents, authorities reported.

Although the spill occurred 1,500 meters from the coast of Isabela island, the largest in the Galapagos archipelago, the government ensured that the impact on the islands would be "minimal."

Meanwhile, a study by Princeton University found evidence that the large number of deaths of iguanas reported last year on Santa Fe island was linked to the earlier 2001 oil spill.

"Despite the low level of pollution reported, several things indicate that the rise in mortality among animals on Santa Fe was linked to the spill," said scientific researcher Martin Wikelski.

The study was carried out from January to December 2001, on the island of Santa Fe, which was affected by the spill, and on Genovesa island, which was not. Just days after the accident, the researchers counted and marked iguanas on both islands, and began to monitor the mortality rate.

"Although months after the spill, both living and food conditions were good, we found an unusually large number of iguana remains on the coast of Santa Fe, which showed that the deaths were caused by external factors," said Wikelski.

The researchers also studied the damages caused by the fuel to the intestines of the iguanas, a species that only in the Galapagos islands has adapted to salt water, explained Fernando Espinoza, director of the Charles Darwin Foundation.

"We are studying whether the fuel interfered with the cellulase enzyme, which enables iguanas to digest cellulose without damage to the intestines," he said.

In January 2001, the tanker Jessica dumped 300 tons of diesel fuel and fuel oil in the sea when it ran aground on a rock.

Environmentalists allege that the government of Gustavo Noboa failed to take prompt action that could have prevented the spill because it trusted the state-run oil company Petrocomercial's claims that the emergency was under control. But three days after the vessel ran aground, the fuel began to leak out, forming a 1,200 square meter fuel slick, which was fortunately carried away from the islands by unusually strong currents.

"We avoided a catastrophe with the help that came from above, because around the Galapagos there are no strong ocean currents, and suddenly one appeared to take part of the fuel away from the coast. Nevertheless, the consequences were felt," said Espinoza.

Authorities used floating barriers and chemical solvents to keep the fuel slick from expanding. But the operation faced complications because many of the solvents are not authorized for use in fragile ecosystems like the waters surrounding the Galapagos islands.

The World Wildlife Fund warned at the time that the accident could have a profound and lasting impact on the islands' fauna. A year and a half later, the high mortality rate of the iguanas seems to bear that out.

In February 2001, the Galapagos National Park sued Acotramar, which owned the Jessica, the boat's captain, Petrocomercial, and Britain's Terranova Insurance company for 14 million dollars in damages, the first lawsuit of its kind filed in Ecuador.

In 1974, UNESCO declared the Galapagos islands a world heritage site, and extended that classification to its marine reserves in 2001.

* The author is an IPS correspondent

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