GCT bid to make Galapagos plastic-free

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Plastic’s most marketable quality, its durability, is exactly what makes it so deadly. Its retention within both marine and terrestrial ecosystems causes severe issues for wildlife (and potentially humans as we ingest tiny plastic particles ‘Microplastics’).

 

Plastic bags a threat to Galapagos wildlife
Plastic bags, although banned since 2015, are still a serious threat – under CC license

 

This is most acutely felt in our oceans, where approximately eight million tonnes of plastic waste is ending up each year. This can have severe impacts on marine species in two ways, entanglement or consumption. The former occurs when an animal gets caught in debris such as fishing nets and lines, beer rings, rope or plastic bags, which inhibits their normal function, often leading to death. Consumption has a much less visible impact, but nonetheless deadly, as plastics can be toxic or cause an intestinal blockage, making an animal feel full and therefore less inclined to feed. This can lead to malnutrition, which in turn lowers growth rates and reproductive outputs, reduces health and can even lead to death.

Galapagos Conservation Trust is just embarking on its latest flagship programme that seeks to make the Galapagos Marine Reserve plastic-free.

Damning statistics suggest that up to 90% of sea birds have plastics inside them, and it is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Globally, hundreds of marine species are at risk, with those in Galapagos no exception.

 

Plastics removed from turtle
Ingested plastic removed from a juvenile green turtle stranded in Northern Cyprus, showing the high quantities and diversity of plastic debris ingested – research is essential to see how plastics might be affecting marine life in Galapagos © Professor Brendan Godley, University of Exeter

 

 

Whilst plastic pollution is a global issue, its impact on Galapagos is primarily seen at a local level, with the majority of the plastics on its shores originating from the Islands themselves. Accidental or deliberate discarding of waste often ends up in the Marine Reserve, posing a significant threat to fish, Galapagos green turtles, cetaceans, Galapagos sea lions, fur seals and seabirds. For example, Galapagos sea lions have been observed playing with floating debris such as plastic waste, which can lead to entanglement. Furthermore, seabirds, including the critically endangered waved albatross, are at risk from ingesting plastics floating on the surface as they forage, which can lead to increased mortality rates.

 

Plastics in the form of microplastics
Example of Microplastics washed up on a beach in Galapagos © Juan Pablo Munoz

 

The Ecuadorian Government is taking steps in the right direction, however, issuing a ban on all plastics bags in 2015 after research showed over four and a half million were being used throughout the Archipelago annually. In spite of this, there is a way to go both in terms of community action in Galapagos and scientific research into the issue itself. Galapagos Conservation Trust (GCT) is just embarking on its latest flagship programme that seeks to make the Galapagos Marine Reserve plastic-free. Due to the complex nature of this issue, GCT is taking a holistic approach, combining scientific methods with grassroots led community work in order to:

  • Find out which species are most vulnerable to plastics
  • Research where the plastic is coming from
  • Find out how best to clean up the coastlines of the Archipelago
  • Discover the most effective way to change local and tourist behaviours
  • Encourage local residents, tour operators and tourists to take up new habits, including reducing their single plastic usage

 

Plastics can have an impact on the penguins of Galapagos
Galapagos penguin – just one of the species at risk from plastics – Andrew Skujins under CC license

 

GCT believes that such an approach can help make the Marine Reserve plastic-free and will form a blueprint for similar projects around the world. Additionally, with more public knowledge about this issue in the UK as a result of public campaigns from NGOs, celebrities and now some leading corporations, there is no better time to act. Perhaps set to be the most influential is Blue Planet’s upcoming episode on the human impact on our seas, including an entire segment on plastics.

GCT believes this is an excellent opportunity to educate the public about the scale and severity of this problem and hope it will help change people’s everyday habits for the better.

 

Written by Ben Stockwell

Communications and Membership Assistant

Ben has a Masters in Conservation Ecology and a background in community engagement in urban conservation. He is responsible for ongoing communications, including publicising project updates and events, as well as handling administrative duties for memberships and merchandise sales.

Please contact Ben with any GCT communications, membership or merchandise queries.

 

Read more GCT articles on talk: Wildlife

 

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