Increasing tourism and the spread of marine invasive non-native species is threatening the unique undersea life around the Galapagos Islands.

Scientists from the UK Universities of Southampton and Dundee are currently investigating the extent of the problem.

Project leader Dr Ken Collins of the National Oceanography Centre said:
“Tourism is partly to blame for the influx of invasive non-native species, due to the huge rise in ships and planes from mainland Ecuador bringing in pests. In recent years, it was realised that cargo ships were carrying disease-infected mosquitoes, which were attracted to the ship’s bright white deck lights. Simply changing from conventional filament bulbs to yellow sodium lamps, along with fumigation in the hold has substantially reduced the threat.

“We are trying to protect marine biodiversity by identifying newly arrived species to the Galapagos, assessing if they have the potential to compete for space and overcome other species of algae and native corals.”

One species causing concern, which has the potential to overwhelm natural populations, is the Indian Ocean lionfish. This fish colonised the Caribbean through accidental release from an aquarium and has spread through the entire Caribbean in the last decade. it is in equilibrium in its natural evironment, but in the southern Caribbean its rapacious appetite has led to the decimation of coral reef fish populations. Lionfish can consume prey up to two thirds of their own length and data shows that they can eat 20 small wrasses in 30 minutes. Their stomachs can expand by up to 30 times in volume when consuming a large catch. The Panama Canal could provide a short cut to Ecuador’s Pacific coast and then the Galapagos.

Preliminary evidence suggests that lionfish are less invasive where large predatory native fishes are abundant.

Prof Terry Dawson, SAGES Chair in Global Environmental Change at Dundee, says,
“Invasive species are becoming one of the greatest threats to biodiversity on a global scale. The Galapagos islands are particularly vulnerable due to the fact that much of the indigenous wildlife have evolved over millions of years in the absence of predators, competition, pests and diseases, which makes them very susceptible to the negative impacts of aggressive non-native species.