Eyewitness: Galapagos giant tortoise kidnap

January 19, 2001

A dramatic confrontation between conservationists and fishing interests in one of the world's most sensitive environments ended last month. The Ecuadorean government effectively traded an increased an-nual catch of lobsters from the marine nature reserve around the Galapagos Islands for the lives of some of the islands' unique giant tortoises. The tortoises were being held hostage by lobster fishermen, who also vandalised an outpost of the Charles Darwin Research Institute on the island of Isabela.

Conservationists say intensive fishing could jeopardise the reserve, which was enshrined in Ecuadorean law in 1998.

However, researchers at Portsmouth University's Centre for the Economics and Management of Aquatic Resources believe commercial and environmental interests are not always in conflict. The centre's research in the Turks and Caicos Islands, funded by the Department for International Development, indicates marine parks and fishing zones can co-exist with few problems. "By creating marine protected areas, fish populations in fishing zones can benefit (their nursery areas and brood stocks are protected)," said Arthur Neiland, the project's leader. "It is quite feasible that the increase in lobster catch will have no impact on the sustainability of the wider stock but, without data, this is impossible to verify."

Their research suggests that it is possible to reconcile the potentially conflicting interests. "A platform for discussion and decision-making is needed so that all stakeholders on the islands are able to arrive at a mutually satisfactory decision based on accurate stock assessment data and biological evidence," project officer Elizabeth Bennett said.

She added:"The Galapagos is suffering from a classic case of trying to maintain the golden goose, while recognising that tourism is a vital revenue earner and that there is a population on the islands that needs to earn a living through fishing. It is perhaps the role of the international community to initiate a real and participatory process between the islands' stakeholders and the state to find a workable solution."

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