Plastic bags in the water look just like jellyfish and jellyfish are part of the diet of Galapagos sea turtles. These reptiles confuse the plastics with food; when they ingest them, the plastics obstruct their intestinal tracts and they die.
The Galapagos flightless cormorant usually makes its nests out of whatever it finds in the ocean, such as seaweed or starfish. But now it builds them out of plastic garbage.
Every year, more than eight million tons of plastic reach the oceans; this is equivalent to 800 times the Eiffel Tower, according to the UN Environment Programme. If the trend continues, by 2050 there will be more plastics than fish in the sea and 99% of seabirds will have consumed them.
One hour from the port of the island of San Cristóbal is one of the most plastic-polluted areas in the entire Archipelago. Known as El Pescador, this uninhabited beach is evidence of the impact of garbage from Asian fleets, especially those from China.
From July to October, boats set up outside Ecuadorian waters mostly in search of the giant Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas). According to the Ecuadorian Navy, 290 vessels were detected in 2020. Of these, 274 waved the Chinese flag, 11 were from Panama and five from other countries. These boats return every year to the outside of the island's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), where they not only fish for months, but also pollute the Archipelago.
Onboard a boat, a group of scientists goes every month to El Pescador to measure the presence of plastics. This is not a tourist site, nor is it easily accessible. Only experienced fishermen go there and they do it when the tide is favorable. From the boat, the beach looks like a postcard, but on closer inspection, the landscape is clearly transformed: bottles, sacks, and all kinds of plastics are mixed with the rocks and wildlife.
Sea lions rest a few meters away from the hundreds of plastic containers. Birds jump on oil bottles that they then peck at in search of food.
A bottle with a Chinese label was the first object the scientists encountered during their last visit in early December 2021. Juan Pablo Muñoz-Pérez, professor at the Galapagos Science Center of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ), is no longer surprised.
Since 2020, this researcher and his team have been collecting plastics at this site. Using a solar camera, installed on a log on the beach, they record the arrival of the garbage from the sea with photographs every 10 minutes. On each visit, they place a tape measure on the sand and collect the garbage they find along 50m. Then they put it in sacks and take it to the laboratory.
There they download the images from the camera to analyze them along with the collected trash. Muñoz-Pérez classifies the waste to identify the most common kind and its origin. On this occasion alone, 600 items were collected. Those that still retain their labels are stored for further study.
"The results obtained in El Pescador are similar throughout the archipelago," says the researcher. Peru, Ecuador and Asian countries—especially China—are the main points of origin of this waste. "Garbage from the first two countries is dragged by ocean currents from the continent, but it is almost impossible for a particle to arrive from China floating against the current to Galapagos," explains Muñoz-Pérez. The fishing fleets or "floating cities", as he calls them, are likely responsible for the items with Asian labels. The researcher is working on a scientific paper analyzing the data, which will be published later in 2022.
Oceanographer Erik van Sebille, from the Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, has corroborated Muñoz-Pérez's information. His study, published in 2019, shows that particles from Asia are unlikely to reach the Archipelago. In addition, the bottles found in Galapagos with Chinese labels are in good condition and their expiration dates are recent. If they came from Asia, they would take up to two years to arrive.
Waste with Chinese labels represents about 30% of all waste collected in each cleanup. The figure is high considering that the amount of garbage associated with the foreign fleet is the same as that from Peru and mainland Ecuador. The other 60% is divided between the latter two countries, while 10% corresponds to different origins.
The picture gets worse when one takes into account that the number of vessels in the Chinese fleet in this part of the Pacific rose from 104 in 2010 to 584 in 2020, according to satellite tracking platform Global Fishing Watch records.
Pollution is increasing all the time, says Muñoz-Pérez. He still has in his mind the image that inspired his studies. In 2011, while conducting a census of sea lions in San Cristóbal, he realized that the garbage problem was already getting out of control. When he arrived in Puerto Tablas to begin the analysis, he was paralyzed to see that there was more garbage than sea lions on the beach.
"It was scary," he says. The place considered one of the most protected on the planet and that served as inspiration for Charles Darwin's theory of evolution could no longer escape the global plastic crisis. Since then, he has been dedicated to studying the effects of plastic pollution on the islands.
In Punta Rocafuerte, another uninhabited area, located an hour away from the fishermen's port on the island of Santa Cruz, the scene is similar. In early December 2021, Walter Borbor visited the site and found plastic bottles, boat oil containers with Chinese labels, sacks with words from Asian languages, and eel traps, which are associated with Asian fishermen and not used by locals in the Galapagos.
During coastal clean-ups it is common to find plastic containers with Chinese writing on them. This is a motor oil bottle. Photo: Isabel Alarcón
"Three months ago we took out about 15 sacks of garbage, mostly Asian, in a single cleanup day," this fisherman recounts indignantly.
"The tourists think that it is the locals who throw garbage away, but the reality is different. We have to pick up the garbage," says Borbor, 45, a native of Manabí, a province on Ecuador's mainland coast.
This fisherman, who has worked in the Galapagos Marine Reserve for 20 years, is a member of the Insular Front and has participated in 50 coastal cleanups. This group was formed in 2017, following the case of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, a Chinese-flagged vessel that was caught in the Galapagos Marine Reserve with more than 7,000 sharks in its hold. Since then, volunteers from the Insular Front have been participating in coastal cleanups in coordination with the Galapagos National Park (GNP).
"Last year the foreign fleet was farther away from Galapagos waters and coincidentally fewer objects with Asian tags were found," says Borbor. That year the fleet was 390 miles from the Insular EEZ, while in 2020 it was 10 miles away, according to Danny Rueda, director of the GNP. Even so, during July 2021 alone, the organization found more than eight thousand bottles associated with these vessels.
According to GNP data, of the 74,206 plastic bottles collected between 2018 and 2021, the provenance of 48.9% (36,299) was identified. Of these, 22.5% correspond to Asian brands, especially ones from China.
"We have no scientific or technical evidence that this garbage comes from foreign vessels," explains Rueda. However, he agrees that the debris found is "very new,” which is a sign that it does not come via currents on its own all the way directly from the Asian continent, 9830 miles away.
One of the events that most shocked Rueda was the discovery of sacks with Asian inscriptions in 2021. "That undoubtedly fell from a ship because they were very new, but there were a lot of them. They floated in," Rueda recalls.
During 2021,15 tons of garbage were collected in the GNP cleanup days. This figure is higher than the previous two years (see infographic).
A red-footed booby with a toothbrush in its beak or a Godzilla iguana ingesting a plastic cover are images that show the problem of garbage on the islands. Muñoz-Pérez's studies show that 33 species have ingested or become entangled in plastic garbage. Of these, 13 are endemic. Most entanglements are related to turtles and sea lions, while ingestion is associated with iguanas.
"We know that plastic is everywhere and that they are eating it. Now we need to know how much plastic it will take to start affecting species," says Daniela Alarcón, USFQ researcher. To learn about its impact on cetaceans, she collected the first sample of feces from a blue whale. "The studies are to measure contaminants in the blubber and microplastic in the skin," she explains. The results of these analyses are expected later this year (2022).
Daniela Hill, director of the Amiguitos del Océano foundation, explains that microplastics are part of the problem, since "out of confusion or sometimes out of curiosity the animals feed on these particles that are floating or drifting down the water columns". These small pieces float in the sea and show up in the sand. "They are smaller than five millimeters and are sometimes imperceptible to the human eye," Hill says. They are formed by the fragmentation of any type of plastic polymer and excess sun, wind, and salinity accelerate the process.
Microplastics don't just affect wildlife. "Plastic gets smaller and smaller until it enters the food chain," Muñoz-Pérez explains. A recent study, led by Jen S. Jones of the Galapagos Conservation Trust, shows that these particles are present in marine invertebrates. Fish mistake these particles for food and they reach the human body after being consumed by these animals. Other studies reveal that the chemicals released by plastic (in this case, from bottled water) can cause hormonal imbalance.
The consequences of the accumulation of plastics and microplastics on health and the economy worry the inhabitants of the islands. "We are afraid that (this pollutant) will get into the fish we eat," says Luis Freire, a cab driver from San Cristóbal. Eighty percent of Freire's income depends on tourism and he fears that the islands will lose their charm. "If something is not done, God forbid we have a bunch of islands of pure garbage.”
Chinese fishing fleets do not return to port. They spend up to two years at sea, fishing and circulating outside the Galapagos Marine Reserve. They transfer the products they catch to mother ships that arrive from time to time and leave with the cargo to their countries of origin. This intensifies fishing and could be the explanation for why their trash ends up in the Galapagos Archipelago. "So far I have not heard that there is any record in port where they check how much garbage is returning," says Muñoz-Pérez.
"The Chinese government strictly demands that all ships operating abroad protect the ecosystem and the environment," assured Chen Guoyou, Chinese ambassador to Ecuador, in an interview with La Voz de América published in October 2021. However, he did not talk about how they enforce these regulations. We requested information from the Chinese Embassy in Ecuador, but received no answer by the closing of this article.
Chinese fishing fleets are regulated by the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO). This organization adopted Conservation and Management Measure 17-2009 in 2019, which is based on Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG14-life underwater); the London Convention and the 1996 Protocol relating to the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter; and other provisions of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (Marpol). The objective was to include marine pollution by oil, sewage, and air pollutants from ships.
In cases of non compliance SPRFMO members (Australia, Chile, China, Ecuador, among others) and cooperating non-contracting parties are responsible for legislating and regulating marine pollution, according to SPRFMO.
Surprisingly, although thousands of pieces of debris associated with Chinese fishing fleets have been found, the SPRFMO has not detected any cases of non-compliance, according to information sent via e-mail to this newspaper. The organization conducts an annual assessment of compliance with conservation and management measures. However, the evaluation consists of a "self-report through a questionnaire".
The Secretariat of the same organization evaluates the document and supplements it with any independent data or information held by the Secretariat (provided by the Members and CNCPs) for “accuracy and completeness”. Foreign marine fleets fishing off the Galapagos Marine Reserve, mostly Chinese, are essentially their own judge and jury.
Management measures must be based on scientific evidence, and although there are studies such as that of oceanographer Erik van Sebille, it has not been possible for the SPRFMO or China, as the country with the largest presence in these fleets, to control the emission of waste into the sea.
In contrast, the practices of the Ecuadorian fishing fleet are controlled by the Ministry of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition (Maate) and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC, the management body for the eastern Pacific), says Bruno Leone, president of the National Chamber of Fisheries of Ecuador.
"For the process of freezing the fish to be effective, brine is used. The jute sacks containing the brine have to be counted and stored so that when the vessel arrives in port, the environmental operator collects the rubbish and disposes of it," says Leone, detailing one of the practices to which Ecuadorian fleets are obliged to adhere. If rubbish is thrown overboard, the observer representing the IATTC will report the fact so that a sanction can be enforced in accordance with local regulations.
At the 2021 annual meeting of the SPRFMO, Ecuador raised the urgency of not transferring fish to mother vessels, as this increases the extraction of resources. Moreover, as vessels do not return to port for several months, they would not have adequate space to store their garbage. Ecuador also requested that observers be assigned to monitor management activities on board vessels, recalls Leone. "This year, Ecuador will insist on this," he says.
Ecuador's Foreign Ministry has talked with China about the action of its fishing fleets to guarantee the sovereignty of Galapagos and the welfare of protected species, but Danny Rueda acknowledges that garbage has not yet been discussed. "Ecuador also proposed to expand the areas of cooperation with China to include the issue of waste management in the Galapagos Islands," reads a statement from the Foreign Ministry, issued after the last meeting Ecuador and China held on the matter as of press time, on July 2, 2021.
The problem is buried in the islands
The San Cristobal Waste Management Center, about 10 minutes from the port, has areas where recyclable items are processed and a sanitary landfill. There, what has no second life is discarded: toilet paper, fragmented plastics (which take up to 450 years to decompose), and thousands of half-buried plastic bags that look as if they are sprouting from the ground. Many have already been ripped up by the wind and are entangled in trees. White herons—a native and endangered species, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature—fly over the dump and coexist with thousands of flies and pestilence.
Marcos Escarabay, a leader of the fishing community and leading proponent of the marine reserve, wants readers to see and keep in their minds the imagery of waste, garbage, and pollution of the Galapagos, the world’s first Natural World Heritage Site (declared in 1978), rather than the paradisiacal image that many hold onto. "We addressed the coastal problem, but we were left with another problem. In 10 more years, Galapagos will no longer be a blessed place, it will be a garbage dump," predicts Escarabay.
The municipalities of San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz have implemented systems of differentiated garbage collection and reclassification to transport recyclable material to the mainland to sell it in Guayaquil.
San Cristóbal sends about 40 containers each year, or about 120 tons of recyclable material, to Ecuador's main port, according to Omar Palma, former supervisor of San Cristóbal's solid waste management center. This municipality pays USD 200 for the logistics of shipping each container, i.e. loading the material into a trailer, transferring it to the dock, placing it in a container, and transporting it to the company that buys the material. None of the municipalities pay for transporting the garbage from the islands to the mainland, since the Organic Law of the Special Regime of the Province of Galapagos requires cargo ships to transport the material free of charge.
On the other hand, Santa Cruz sends about 70 containers of recyclable material to Guayaquil during the same period. The cost of garbage management borne by the municipality is USD 150,000 per year, according to Henry Bayas, Environmental Director of Santa Cruz. The sale of recyclable material in 2019 totaled USD 47,000. In 2020 and 2021, the amounts recovered were low, but the range was between USD 30,000 and USD 40,000 annually. "The sale of each material varies according to market prices, which are always fluctuating," he explained.
Only about 30% of the cost of all garbage management is recovered annually. In any case, Mario Piu, former Environmental Director of Santa Cruz (in the period 2015-2019), considers that taking the recyclable material out of the Archipelago is an investment. "This action prevents all that material from staying on the island," he says. Thus, municipalities save space in landfills and save resources to expand infrastructure without affecting protected areas, he explains.
But the international fishing fleets, says Escarabay, are not the only ones responsible for the garbage left on the islands. It is mainly the tour operators who are to blame, according to Piu. Although they receive mandatory training every year on waste management and sorting, in the end all the waste is left in the hands of the municipalities.
Also responsible are the inhabitants of the islands who violate the bans on the use of plastics. Since 2015, the Municipality of Santa Cruz has issued ordinances prohibiting the entry of some types of plastic bags, disposable containers, plastic straws and bottles, among others.
As of 2018, four years after the resolution was issued, the Galapagos Governing Council put into effect the restriction on the use of plastic bags and Styrofoam containers for all the islands of the Archipelago. But these regulations are only partially enforced. San Cristóbal is the only island that has not issued a ban," says Henry Bayas. "The merchants bring garbage to San Cristóbal and send it by ferry to other inhabited islands.”
The population of continental cities is also partly responsible, because their garbage, as well as that of the fishing fleets, will end up in the sea. This happens, Muñoz-Pérez explains, because much of the waste from Quito, Guayaquil, or Lima reaches the rivers that flow into the Pacific ocean and arrive at the Galapagos.
The management of all this waste falls only on these small islands (according to the 2015 Galapagos Population and Housing Census, Santa Cruz had 15,701 inhabitants and San Cristóbal had 7,199). "Garbage processing is the responsibility of the municipalities, but how do they finance it, who do they charge, if they say they can't charge a lot of taxes to the tourist operation? Who, then, assumes the costs of all these necessities of living in a World Heritage Site?" asks Piu.
While government representatives meet infrequently to discuss this issue, islanders are looking for solutions on their own.
Valeria Solano, representative of the Copespromar Fishing Cooperative, says that the islands' fishing cooperatives sent a project plan to the Galapagos Governing Council to implement a coastal cleanup plan. The proposal is to take advantage of the resources of this sector so that each fisherman is responsible for periodically cleaning a specific area in return for payment for this work.
With or without the project, fishermen like Walter Borbor will continue to clean as they go about their work days and in the cleanup campaigns led by different institutions. "Every time I jump ashore to do some fishing work, I find containers like this," he says, while holding a bottle of motor oil with Asian letters on the label that he found on the beach at Punta Rocafuerte. "Imagine if this decomposes and is combustible, it causes a great impact for the wildlife and marine life that exists here on the island. We have found many times in products that are open and in larger containers dead iguanas, dead zayapas (a type of crab). It is very sad to see a life lost.”
This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in Spanish in Mongabay LatAm and republished in La Barra Espaciadora on 14 February 2022. It has been translated and lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Most cases of plastic ingestion in the Galapagos are associated with iguanas. This is a Godzilla iguana / Credit: Juan Pablo Muñoz-Pérez.