El Niño and the Galapagos Islands

A Conversation with Joshua Feingold

From the Environmental Review Newsletter
Volume Three Number Two, February 1996


 In 1982-83 an El Niño changed the weather in the Galapagos Islands. Several months of warmer sea waters caused die offs among some organisms like sea weeds and the marine iguanas that depend on them for food. More than ninety percent of the coral reefs in the Galapagos were wiped out by the 1982 El Niño and are now slowly rebuilding.  However, a lucrative fishery in shark fins and sea cucumbers - delicacies for the Asian market - is depleting these animals in a National Marine Reserve. The residents of the Galapagos are experiencing economic pressure to exploit resources in a marine reserve because these fisheries have been over-exploited in most of the rest of the Pacific basin.
     For an additional perspective about the events and issues in the Galapagos we spoke with Doctor Joshua Feingold who spent nine months living in the Galapagos doing research on coral reef ecology for his doctoral thesis. He is currently a visiting professor at Nova Southeastern University teaching classes in environmental science, general ecology, research methods, oceanography and coral reef ecology.
ER: Dr. Feingold, how did you start out your research on coral reefs?

JF: My advisor, Dr. Glynn, and his colleagues did a lot of the preliminary research on coral reef ecology in the Galapagos starting in the mid-to-late-1970s. They had a baseline of ecological surveys when the severe 1982-83 El Niño hit and they were able to monitor the damage as well as the recovery. I went to Ecuador expecting to work on some of the reef building corals, but because they were so depleted - basically anywhere from ninety-five to ninety-nine percent of all the reef building corals were destroyed - it made it difficult to find a place to work. So I wound up working on a unique site where there is a community of corals that live in fifteen meter depth, near Devil´s Crown on the north coast of Floreana Island.
     I wound up working on this deep coral community which was primarily composed of two species of coral, Diaseris distorta, a fungiid coral, and Psammocora stellata. They were there in extremely high numbers. I calculated their populations over several thousand square meters of area; the Diaseris was well over a hundred thousand individuals and Psammocora was on the order of fifty or sixty thousand colonies in the depths of forty to about eighty or ninety feet of water.

ER: How did the extreme El Niño of 1982-83 damage the corals?

JF: In the Galapagos,corals are limited by cool water temperatures. Cool oceanic water comes from the upwelling that occurs off the continent and on the western side of the Galapagos. It is not unusual in tropical areas like Florida or the Caribbean for water temperatures to get over thirty-one degrees Celsius [31 degrees C = 88 degrees F ed.], that is a rare occasion in the Galapagos. In the warmest part of the year, you might see twenty-seven or twenty-eight degrees normally, then it will go down into the teens pretty regularly during the cool season. So it is relatively cool water for corals. That is why many people felt there were limited coral distributions in the Eastern Pacific. However the El Niño of 1982-83 suggests there might be severe, infrequent disturbances of warm conditions that also limit coral distribution in the Eastern Pacific, particularly at the Galapagos. We lost ninety-five to ninety-nine percent of the reef building corals in one year.

ER: What is El Niño?

JF: El Niño is short for the El Niño-Southern Oscillation or ENSO. The El Niño current occurs annually around Christmastime; it is a warm current from the north that affects coastal fisheries. Mainly El Niño is a warming of the surface waters and a depression of the main thermocline, [the thermocline is a boundary between the warm surface water and the colderdeep water. ed.], decrease in nutrient concentrations in surface waters, increased rainfall on land and sea, increased sedimentation in runoff from the continent. But of primary importance to the corals is the increased ocean surface water temperature.

ER: They must be living close to their limiting temperature.

JF: Yes. During El Niño the temperature got up to maybe 30 or 31 for several weeks and normally for corals, that would not be such a big deal. But the corals in the Galapagos are probably adapted to cooler water; El Niño was severe in 1982-83. Dr. Glynn´s research suggests that mild El Niños, like in 1987 or the early 1990s, may improve coral reproduction by providing a little bit warmer conditions but not to the point where it is deleterious.

ER: How is the recovery with the corals?

JF: The reef building corals in the Galapagos are showing initial signs of recovery. Another problem associated with the coral mortality was that after the corals died, there was a large increase in slate pencil sea urchin populations - Eucidaris thuarsii - on the reefs. Since the coral died, Eucidaris has come in and bioeroded most of the framework away and what used to be reef is now sand and rubble. That means the corals are going to have to start from square one, perhaps even from basalt, building the reef back up.
     We have seen signs of recruitment, corals coming in as larvae settling on rocks and growing. And we have seen some signs of the colonies that survived, they are still there and doing okay and some of them are recovered. They have regrown over areas that were damaged.

ER: Coral reefs provide habitat for other organisms. What did the coral die off do to the rest of the marine community?

JF: There were few coral communities in the Galapagos to begin with. One reef was located within Devils Crown, a highly visited spot, a very beautiful spot. Before 1982-83 it was even more beautiful because there were many corals, many coral associated fish, and other invertebrates. There are still some corals there now but the main part of the reef frame is gone and there are less fish there because it is now rubble instead of reef. It is also not as pretty as it was before. There has been a loss of structure: When you lose habitat or you lose structure in a reef, it is like knocking down their houses and you don´t have the same organisms living there that would have otherwise.
     We have seen decreases in populations of fish like the Guinea fowl puffer fish, that is a coral predator. Other coral associated organisms like symbiotic crabs, and symbiotic shrimp, those numbers are decreased; certainly the beauty of the area is diminished.

ER: Were the land animals harmed by the ENSO of 1982-83?

JF: Certainly. The marine iguanas were severely affected by El Niño, the sea lions were severely affected, even land iguanas. Seabirds, such as boobys, albatross and gulls suffered during ENSO. Most organisms that derived food from the sea suffered during ENSO 1982-83. Some land birds actually had a heyday because they had a lot of food due to high rainfall and they could do well, but other birds did not.
     As far as the corals go, the highest levels of mortality that I know of, were experienced by corals during that El Niño disturbance.

ER: Why should people be concerned about the Galapagos?

JF: It is a biological Mecca. There is a high degree of endemism there. And because  we have a firm understanding of when the islands arose and how long things have had to evolve there.  It is a signal place for documenting what happens during evolution and during dispersal events. [Endemic species are unique to one place. ed.]

ER: The islands are not very old.

JF: Right. The islands are around 2.5 million years old, the ones that are extant. But there are also submerged seamounts to the east and northeast of the archipelago.  Theoretically those were islands in the past which means that organisms may have had longer than 2.5 million years to evolve. When those older islands were out of the water, it is likely that some things were living on them. One of the problems with the evolutionary timetable for marine and lnd iguanas is that we never thought there was enough time for them to diverge so much from the same ancestor. And given another million years maybe it would have been possible.

ER: The Galapagos are moving over a hot spot in the Earth´s crust; that explains the volcanoes.

JF: Yes. There are two ridges: the east ridge the Carnegie Ridge, and the northeast ridge, the Cocos Ridge. It is almost like the islands are marching off in two different directions. It is interesting biologically because not only is there endemism from the mainland to the islands; there is endemism among the islands within the archipelago.

ER: What in your opinion, is the most important problem now in the Galapagos?

JF: The most serious threat to the Galapagos is species introduced by humans. Hawaii is an example of where we lost much of the species diversity and native habitat due to species introduction.

ER: Most of the vegetation in Hawaii is non-native.

JF: Florida is in a similar position and it is a shame there isn´t more control, but there is not much money for control programs and the people who make the decisions are often not necessarily thinking about conservation as their highest priority.

ER: What introduced species are there in the Galapagos?

JF:  I think the worst introduced species are plants, because the plants structure the community just like corals structure the community for marine organisms. For example, there is a plant called Cinchona that has been introduced to the island of Santa Cruz.  It is a large-leafed plant that is moving into the upper zones of the island and is displacing many of the native species.

ER: What does displacing other plants do?

JF: Well, one simple example is how the Cinchona affects the Hawaiian petrels: they only nest on the Galapagos and Hawaii. The petrel has to nest at the tops of mountains and it needs access to the ground. The vegetation in the Galapagos now is very thin leafed, it is not too hard for the bird to take off and land through this low sparse canopy. But Cinchona is a very dense foliage, so it compromises the birds´ ability to get into where it needs to nest. In general, once you change the organisms that structure the community, you will change what is going on for many of the other species that live there. Cinchona invasion is now an experiment and nobody knows what is going to happen.
     Another problem is insect introductions. I guarantee you we do not know all of the endemic species of insects that are there now. And I know there are at least two species of introduced wasps, several different introduced species of fire ants. And then there are rats.

ER: Rats can wreck a nesting colony for birds.

JF: And what rats can do to Galapagos tortoise populations can be spectacular. That is why the Charles Darwin station, in a bold move, took over the reproductive biology of the Española tortoise, collected all of them out of the wild. I think they were down to about sixteen or seventeen, and now the population levels are back up in the hundreds, which is a save as far as I am concerned.

ER: Were those tortoises removed from their island?

JF: They were. And have now been reintroduced. Linda Cayot, who is the herpetologist at the Charles Darwin Research Station, has been instrumental in forwarding that program and I think it is one of the better success stories.
     The Galapagos is a tough place to work and live. There is a lot of political intrigue as you have heard. There are many competing forces: There are people who want to promote the welfare of the people who are living there, there are fishermen who want to go out and fish the waters, there are tour operators who want to bring tours in, and there are many competing desires.
     I think it is important for people not to lose sight of why the Galapagos are special. It is mostly because of the unique organisms that live there, and it would be a tragedy to lose them.

ER: Visitors to the islands see endemic plants and animals. Is there also high endemism in the marine environment?

JF: There is, but not as much as on the land. Marine organisms by their nature, have broader istributions since they can be dispersed by currents. There are many marine species that are endemic, notably fish; there is a species of  non reef building coral, Tubastrea; there appear to be several endemic species of small cryptic corals, but the reef building corals also occur other places in the Eastern Pacific if not the whole Pacific.

ER: The islands are a rough place to live.

JF: People die there every year. There are dramatic stories of survival and not survival.

ER: What can you say about the politics of the islands?

JF: All I can say is, it is no big surprise there are different factions there. There are those who want to promote tourism for all of its benefits and detriments. There are those who wish to promote conservation and there are people there with their own agenda. And I think the critical thing is
to cut through all the layers of subterfuge and get down to what the real agenda are. It is difficult because for one; everybody there has to worry about food and water and it is a growing population so there is a great deal of change there. And change is always a scary thing for people.
     There is an economic incentive to open fisheries, there is a conservation initiative to keep them controlled or closed, and the problem is trying to get to a middle ground or what the correct ground is. The problem I see happening there for the most part is there does not seem to be any venue where people can sit down and in a rational manner hash these things out. There seem to be a lot of factions that fight trying to get their ideas forwarded. And there is a dangerous nationalistic inclination that has been going on there.

ER: That makes it problematic for Gringos to tell them how to run their island.

JF: Or even for nationals who want to promote something that is, maybe in the long run more in the best interests for nationals. Suppose there is a nationalistic impetus to open up the fisheries. Well fine, you open up the fisheries for something as controversial as sea cucumbers which is a short term fishery: it is fished heavily and you eliminate the sea cucumbers from the environment in a relatively short time. It is not a sustainable fishery if it is not managed properly. And there is not an incentive to manage it because there is a lot of money to be made right now.

ER: When you say eliminate, do you mean completely?

JF: No. I mean economically disappear. What that means is there are so few sea cucumbers there that it does not pay for you to go swimming around looking for them. In other places where they have been fished out, they have not disappeared but their population levels are depleted to minute percentages of what they once were, even thirty or forty years after the fishing has stopped. Which to me indicates that there is some kind of population critical point, once you go below that point you lose it.

ER: They call that depensation in fisheries. People are just starting to figure out that once you whack a population really hard, it may not recover to its former size.

JF: The lobster fishing has depleted the lobster population substantially. There was a shark fin fishery there for a while.

ER: Is the shark fin fishery gone?

JF: The last I heard it was gone, but things go and come depending on the political climate at the moment. The unfortunate thing is that the decisions do not seem to be based on fisheries biology so much as they are on what people want to do.

ER: That is true in the U.S. as well.

JF: These complaints are complaints you can use almost anywhere in the world. It is just more dramatic to me in the Galapagos because it is such a special place in my heart. I wish there were a way, all around the world, that people could get together and make rational decisions about what to do with their resources but it´s tough. Even in the U.S. when you have the fishing lobbies that say, We have to make a living; if you say we can´t use gill nets then we will not be able to make as much money. And that is true. So it is a very difficult situation in the Galapagos now and I hope that the conservation ethic will prevail because in the long run, I think it is better for everybody.

ER: How would you ut the reports of violence and intimidation in perspective?

JF: It is hard to know what to believe. For one, even when you are there, you can´t go and see all these things, and then you hear stories, and in many ways, people love a soap opera and so things can be over dramatized and under dramatized depending on the agenda.

ER: I heard of people holding the staff of the Darwin Research Station hostage with machetes.

JF: The times I have heard of that happening in the past, it sounds dramatic. I think the people that were being held previously, I am not saying this time, but the previous occasions, I don´t think they ever felt they were personally in serious jeopardy, it was more of an annoyance.

ER: Right but people were willing to make that threat to make a point.

JF: It´s a frontier mentality. There are people there who want to promote conservation, there are people who want to promote nationalist interests, there are people there who want to make sure that their bread and butter does not get removed, and I think many inflammatory discussions develop because people have personal agendas.  The same story can be told today in the U.S. You can look at logging, you can look at fishing anywhere in the U.S., you can look in Florida at the conflict between big sugar and the Florida Everglades. There is information, disinformation, this is true, no it´s not, tobacco is addictive, no it´s not, it is no different. When you look at the science usually the way seems clear, but people do not necessarily believe the science. That is no big surprise. You go out and collect sea cucumbers and remove ninety percent of them from the areas where you are fishing them, they are not going to come back. And people that say that they will are wrong. And they are saying that because they want to do it.

ER: Sea cucumbers have been fished out in many other locations in the Pacific.

JF: Why are they fishing in the Galapagos? Because places that are closer have been fished out.

ER: Who is in charge of the Galapagos?

JF: There is a lot of discussion about that. There is a marine park, the Galapagos Marine Reserve, and there is a lot of infighting going on there as well. The National Park for the land does not control what goes on in the sea. and what goes on in the sea is controlled by other organizations that don´t want the National Park people to dictate to them what they do.

ER: The Islands are a reserve. What does that mean?

JF: The land is under the jurisdiction of The Galapagos National Park Service and is a park. The marine areas are a marine reserve. The idea I understood when the reserve was originally established, was to protect the species: not to allow any extraction except for artisanal extraction. And artisanal fishing is much less of a concern because the technology is low and the numbers of animals taken are low. The problem is when it becomes an export industry and when you have coordinated efforts of people going out in an organized, mechanized way, extracting resources, like shark fins, like sea cucumbers, and even like the lobsters. Lobsters are very uncommon now in the Galapagos and they used to be like in Florida and you would go to any pier and there they would be. But they are mostly gone from Florida, they are mostly gone from Galapagos. The big problem is nobody knows what the result will be. Sea cucumbers process sand, they rework the sand, they provide a cleaning service and a reworking service. Who knows what will happen to the rest of the community if they are not there?

ER: There is not a big NSF program to look at the ecological role of sea cucumbers?

JF: Not that I´m aware of. Dr. Bob Richmond from the University of Guam did some work there on this issue and a scientist at the Darwin Station, Priscilla Martinez, did research on sea cucumbers. Their recommendation was not to open the fisheries up on as large a scale as it has been. There is not much money for resource management and enforcement so it´s tough. The Galapagos archipelago is a huge area. There is little funding and few boats.

ER: Tourists are instructed not to take food ashore, you can´t camp ashore, you can´t go ashore without a park gude. There is a quarantine on most of the islands, and in spite of that non-native plants and animals are getting in.

JF: The tourism industry is self-managed pretty well. If you are a colonial, those restrictions were for a long time relatively meaningless. That has changed in the last year somewhat. There has been more of an effort to control what comes in. That is improving.

Copyright 1996 Environmental Review

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