Galapagos: the "Rosetta Stone of Evolution" faces devastation from climate change and fishing

12/4/2009

The coastal wildlife of the Galapagos Islands – arguably the world’s most celebrated environmental treasure – has suffered outright transformations due to a combination of climate change and over fishing, with several species of marine plants and animals believed to have gone extinct and many others seriously threatened, a new report reveals today.

The report, which is published today in the scientific journal Global Change Biology, outlines the massive impact that the increasing ocean temperatures associated with strong El Niño events have had on the archipelago which, coupled with fishing, tourism and other human activities have changed Darwin’s living laboratory forever.

The report follows a major scientific meeting, convened by the Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment, the Galápagos National Park Service, Conservation International, WWF and other organizations, to assess the vulnerability of the Islands to climate change. Experts established that the El Niño weather cycle, possibly aggravated by global climate change, and combined with other human impacts has systematically impoverished the Galápagos marine environment in just a few decades.

Coral reefs and kelp beds have been eliminated, once-abundant marine species such as the Galápagos black-spotted damselfish (Azurina eupalama), Galápagos stringweed (Bifurcaria galapagensis), as well as the 24-rayed sunstar (Heliaster solaris) are thought to be extinct, and dozens of others – including the beloved Galapagos penguin – are within a hairsbreadth of annihilation. Based on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List, two species are "probably" extinct, another 7 "possibly" extinct, and a further 36 Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered. Climate change is predicted to make this devastating set of conditions more frequent and intense in the region.

On top of this, by comparing heavily to lightly fished areas in the Galapagos Marine Reserve, scientists learned that overfishing weakened the web of life in Galapagos through cascading effects of the expansion of sea urchin populations, which in turn erode its resilience.
 
The scientists that co-authored the report hope that the findings will demonstrate the urgency of taking action so that delegates at the international climate conference in Copenhagen later this month make tough commitments to adequately finance both measures to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to urgently address the climate adaptation needs of vulnerable communities and ecosystems.

Report coauthor Scott Henderson, Conservation International’s Regional Marine Conservation Director in the Eastern Tropical Pacific said: "If marine species are going extinct in one of the most famous, and most cherished World Heritage Sites, what is happening in the rest of the World that has been so little studied? It is time we recognize that the Ocean has limits just as the rain forests of the Amazon, the rivers of Europe, the ice sheets of the Arctic and the grasslands of the Great Plains. For seas to thrive we need increased efforts to slow climate change, more, bigger and better managed marine protected areas (MPAs) and better managed fishing activities outside MPAs."

Authors of the report believe that the Galápagos Islands are a "canary in a coalmine" – a telling indicator of what the world has in store under global warming. The archipelago lies at the convergence of several major ocean currents, which allows a diverse and unique set of ecosystems to co-exist – from penguins to marine iguanas to corals. However, during El Niño years ocean temperatures throughout the Galápagos Marine Reserve rise a few degrees. These increases are roughly in line with those predicted under climate change scenarios for this region. During these years scientists are able to get a glimpse into the future of how wildlife and the people that depend on the environment might fare under climate change conditions. 

Sylvia Earle, one of the paper’s coauthors and one of the foremost authorities on marine issues said: "Nowhere on Earth are the combined impacts of climate change and overfishing more clearly defined than in the Galápagos Islands where unique assemblages of wildlife live on the sharp edge of change. Decades of data link recent fishing pressures to disruption of the islands' fine-tuned systems, making them more vulnerable to natural – and anthropogenic changes in climate."

Professor Les Kaufmann from Boston University said: "The Galápagos , the Rosetta Stone of evolution, is now teaching us the far-reaching impacts of climate change on ocean ecosystems. Though too late to stop, we now know that the impacts of climate change can be softened by cutting back on fishing.  The wildlife we eat today was part of the inner workings of an ecosystem which was under stress from global climate change and when these ecosystems are damaged, species and livelihoods can vanish in a heartbeat."

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For further details or a PDF of the full report contact:
Patricia Yakabe Malentaqui, Press Officer, Conservation International
Work: +1 703 341-2471; Mobile: +1 571 225-8345; Email: p.malentaqui@conservation.org; Skype: patricia.ym

For the following images click on this link: http://bit.ly/74rKO8
Heliaster solaris (24-rayed sunstar; possibly extinct species; photo Cleve Hickman, Jr.)
Azurina eupalama (black spotted damselfish; probably extinct species; photo Jack Grove LOW RES IMAGE)
Mycteroperca olfax (Galápagos grouper; vulnerable species; photo Graham Edgar)
Tubastraea floreana (Floreana cup coral; critically endangered species; photo Paul Humann)
Spheniscus mendiculus (Galápagos penguin; endangered species)
Ambyrhynchus cristatus (Galápagos marine iguana; vulnerable species)
Pre- and post-El Nino algae bed transformation (1974 photo by Gerry Wellington, same location in 2003 by Fernando Rivera)

Notes to editors:

Species that are either possibly extinct or Critically Endangered:
Species not formally evaluated but probably extinct:
1. Black spotted damselfish (Azurina eupalama)
2. Heliaster solaris (the 24-rayed sea star)
Species possibly extinct:
1. Dictyota galapagensis (macroalgae/seaweed species common in cold water areas of Galápagos that warm beyond species tolerances during El Ninios, and that have not seen by anyone for about 20 years)
2. Spatoglossum schmitti (macroalgae/seaweed species common in cold water areas of Galápagos that warm beyond species tolerances during El Ninios, and that have not seen by anyone for about 20 years)
3. Desmarestia tropica (macroalgae/seaweed species common in cold water areas of Galápagos that warm beyond species tolerances during El Ninios, and that have not seen by anyone for about 20 years)
4. Phycodrina elegans (macroalgae/seaweed species common in cold water areas of Galápagos that warm beyond species tolerances during El Ninios, and that have not seen by anyone for about 20 years)
5. Gracilaria skottsbergii (macroalgae/seaweed species common in cold water areas of Galápagos that warm beyond species tolerances during El Ninios, and that have not seen by anyone for about 20 years)
6. Galaxaura barbata (macroalgae/seaweed species common in cold water areas of Galápagos that warm beyond species tolerances during El Ninios, and that have not seen by anyone for about 20 years)
7. Galápagos stringweed (Bifurcaria galapagensis)

IN ADDITION TO THE 9 SPECIES ABOVE, the paper identifies the following 9 marine and/or coastal species and numbers as Critically Endangered (‘on the edge of extinction’):
1. Camarhynchus heliobates (mangrove finch; one of the famous Darwin’s finches confined to only about 200 individuals and wholly dependent on mangrove areas that could be threatened by climate change)
2. Pterodroma phaepygia (Galápagos petrel; dependent on food supplies likely to be affected by climate change and nesting habitat that can be drowned out by high rains predicted under climate change)
3. Dermochelys coriacea (leatherback turtle; food supplies and nesting sites affected)
4. Eretmochelys imbricata (hawksbill turtle; food supplies and nesting sites affected)
5. Rhizopsammia wellingtoni (coral nearly disappeared, susceptible to warming temperatures)
6. Tubastreae floreana (coral nearly disappeared, susceptible to warming temperatures)
7. Laurencia oppositoclada (red algae)
8. Myriogramme kylinii (red algae)
9. Schizymenia ecuadoreana (red algae)
There are another 7 species found to be Endangered, but not critically.
There are another 20 species identified as Vulnerable.

Conservation International (CI): Building upon a strong foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration, CI empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature for the well-being of humanity. With headquarters in Washington, D.C., CI works in more than 40 countries on four continents. For more information about CI, visit www.conservation.org.

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