While in the Galapagos filming we ran into an American writer living in Puerto Ayora, the big town on the island of Santa Cruz, researching a book about exactly the same subject of our film – the current state of affairs across the archipelago.
Carol Ann Bassett’s book is just out, published by National Geographic, fittingly titled “Galapagos at the Crossroads: Pirates, Biologists, Tourists and Creationists Battle for Darwin’s Cradle of Evolution,” and it’s a fantastic tutorial for anyone curious about the natural and human health of the island state today.
I was particularly curious about her reportage on Darwin’s initial reaction to the islands that will forever be linked with his theory of evolution.
Like other biographers of Darwin – who first visited in 1835 as a curious but inexperienced 26-year-old, born the same day as Abraham Lincoln – she labels his role as evolutionary mystery solver as “one of the greatest myths of the history of science.” Citing a study by Harvard professor and MacArthur Foundation “genius” Frank Sulloway, the book details how little Darwin actually took away from the Galapagos after his five-week visit. He had “no eureka flashes of enlightenment,” she writes, “it would take decades before his final theory transcended his religious beliefs and his enduring doubts.”
In his book “Voyage of the Beagle” Darwin referenced the Galapagos sparingly; in his “On the Origin of Species,” published twenty years later, he never mentioned the finches – mistakenly thought by many to be the linchpin of his evolutionary theory – and which are named for him.
It took those twenty years between publications for the significance of the Galapagos to sink in on Darwin. For two decades he wrestled with the history of creationism and its relevance to species diversity. In the end, he came down on the right side of the argument (unless of course you are among those who continue to believe the planet is only 6,000 years old and that life as we know it was created in six days). That his name and theory are so inextricably linked with both evolution and the Galapagos is something Darwin could have never predicted. Nor could he have predicted the clash of economics and the environment, which so wrack the place today.
The Charles Darwin Research Center sits atop a long hill climbing up from Puerto Ayora, on the big island of Santa Cruz. Part of the Charles Darwin Foundation established in 1959 – the lone international research and advisory institution dedicated to exclusively studying the Galapagos – the CDRS is both an archive of historical scientific study and site of various laboratories engaged in today’s most cutting-edge research in the islands. Many of the world’s most-expert Galapganian scientists either have worked here or still do and we’ve walked up the hill to visit with one, marine biologist Alex Hearn … who we find with his hands in a tank, coddling one of the darlings of local marine life, the sea cucumber.
Sitting on a second-story deck overlooking the blue ocean that is his backyard we talk about the impacts of over fishing here. Some highlights:
“You know the Galapagos has a history of over-exploitation that goes way back to the whalers of the sixteenth century. Ever since we’ve had successive waves of boom-bust fisheries. The latest being the sea cucumber which started in the early Nineties as a result of the resource collapsing on the continent followed by a sizable migration of fishers who had already successively depleted the sea cucumber along the coast of Ecuador moving to the islands and hammering the resource here. At the time it was unregulated and there was no way of stopping it because there was no Marine Reserve. By the time the Marine Reserve was created a lot of the damage had already been done. Sometimes we forget that the Marine Reserve management system inherited a lobster resource which had already collapsed in the Eighties, and a sea cucumber resource that had already been heavily fished for ten years ….”
“In terms of coastal fishing, the number of local fishermen — who are the only ones legally allowed to fish here — has nearly tripled during the Nineties, from about 400 to over 1,000. Fishing around the coast has increased dramatically and we haven’t been very successful in managing it. In part because it’s a group with a lot of political power as well as the perception of an immediate need. Since 1998 this local management system has failed to take into account the sustainability of both lobster and sea cucumber. The result is that both are suffering, badly ….”
“When you’re at university or when you’re studying a particular species biologically you’re focused on the species. When you’re looking at the fisheries, the actual biology of the species is the least important thing really, your job becomes more about managing people. Getting them, first of all, to trust that our advice is first and foremost because we are scientists and is focused on sustainability. Our motivation is not about eliminating or prohibiting fishermen. There is a big lack of trust here, partly due to the fact that we’re both a science and conservation organization and carry a fair amount of political power as well. As a result we vote on the system as a conservation sector but we also provide the technical advice, which may sometimes seen as a little bit suspect. Some locals, fishermen, will say ‘You’re providing the advice just to justify your position.’ It can get very complex. It’s about building trust and showing them that the long-term impacts of over fishing and are very difficult to prove but that we still need to make changes now ….”
“Working in Galapagos is like a rollercoaster. There are times when it’s immensely frustrating and there are times when it’s just paradise. To tell the truth, for me, as a young scientist coming to Galapagos straight out of university, to be able to develop lines of research, to be able to publish, to be able to take the research from the sea to the government and follow that entire process is something you really don’t get in many other places. On a personal level I am eternally grateful for Galapagos. Besides, Galapagos also gave me a wife and a baby. So what can I say?”