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Blog of a Vegan Pirate in Galapagos, Post 1: The State of Galapagos

The Rocio tuna fishing vessel

One of the illegal tuna boats of the Galapagos

From September to December 2008, the vegan conservation group Sea Shepherd waged a fight to protect the ecosystem and all the animals of the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. This blog recounts what happened in that time, serving for the group.

The blog post below describes what the state of the Galapagos is, and what has transpired there with Sea Shepherd before my arrival.


The view from the Isabela Island radar base.

First of all, the people responsible for a lot of the progress in this campaign can never be thanked or recognized, because identifying them would put them at great physical risk. That said, the residents of the Galapagos who helped us are absolutely invaluable to our cause, and without their support, our task here would be nearly futile.

And before we start talking about the actual campaign for conservation and animal welfare, it’s important to understand the state of conservation in the Galapagos, and the state of Sea Shepherd here, in order to understand the nature of the fight.

The Galapagos Islands

As the residents of the Galapagos say, “The Galapagos isn’t Ecuador.” It’s its own world, with its own culture, history, and conflicts.


One of the native residents of the Galapagos, asking to see my authorization papers.

The Galapagos is absolutely nothing like any guidebook makes it out to be. It is a beautiful archipelago that needs a lot more help than anyone thinks. The sad truth is that the Galapagos is under such extreme ecological pressure that many of the unique plants and animals that identify these islands are rapidly going extinct, and it may be a few short years before all the amazing species of this archipelago disappear completely.


A blue-footed boobie bird, one of the unique species that people visit the Galapagos to see.

Twenty years ago, there were around 1,000 people total on Santa Cruz island, the most populace island of the Galapagos. This year, there are nearly 20,000 residents of this island, and it sees well over 1,000 new tourists per month, around 160,000 visitors a year, with over 350 truck taxis driving on it 24 hours a day. The impact of that many people absolutely crushes the ecosystem for many reasons.


Most visitors to the Galapagos don’t expect to see actual towns and cities.

In 2000, the Galapagos islands produced around 10 tons of garbage for the whole year. In just the first three quarters of 2008, however, the islands already produced 800 tons of trash. That number doesn’t count the tons of plastic products imported by giant cargo ships multiple times per week. But regardless of where it comes from, almost all of the trash is now sitting in the national park or floating in the waters of the Galapagos, killing countless sea turtles, sea lions, unique birds, tropical fish, etc. And these rare, exotic islands with unique forests are not conducive to holding the giant landfills they are now forced to host. At this point, there are more introduced, invasive species like rats, parasites, and crippling animal diseases on Santa Cruz Island than there are endemic species on this island.


Isabela Island’s National Park Lands.

Trash brings us to one of the biggest problems of the Galapagos: its infrastructure has largely not changed from back when it had a small number of people. Thus, there is still zero sewage treatment, the electricity comes from diesel generators, and in many cases (like the case of Isabela Island, the largest island of the Galapagos), there’s zero recycling. Giant diesel truck trailers need to come every day to keep the Santa Cruz Island power plant running. And all the archipelago’s sewage goes into seep tanks that eventually drain back into the ocean, polluting the water intake for tap water. All this untreated waste causes the Galapagos’ unique sea life to suffer greatly.


Santa Cruz Island is powered by burning huge amounts of diesel every day.


There is no sewage treatment for any of the approximately 30,000 permanent residents of the Galapagos.

Sea lions here now suffer from widespread respiratory problems. Walk to any beach filled with sea lions, and you can hear them all coughing and hacking and wheezing for breath, which isn’t normal for these populations. On top of that, all of the floating garbage/plastics, oil slicks, chemical pools, new speedboats, and ubiquitous powerful outboard engines are each shredding a different part of this tiny and delicate marine ecosystem. Every single person who comes to the Galapagos directly contributes to the destruction of the Galapagos and its animals.

A lot of people think things are improved now, however, thanks to the new constitution of Ecuador, and that is an issue that needs to be addressed as well.

The New Constitution

On September 27th, 2008, Ecuador voted to pass a new constitution with a fascinating chapter on nature. A US group, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, helped draft the Article, which reads:

“Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution. Every person, people, community or nationality, will be able to demand the recognitions of rights for nature before the public bodies.”

Around the world, people praised Ecuador for this passage on nature in the new constitution. However, being realistic about this constitution paints a very bleak picture. But being realistic about the constitution is absolutely necessary if we want to address the actual issues that will bring about positive change.

The passage is worded very nicely to say nice things about the environment. It sounds good to people who are thousands of miles away. But the truth is, that passage has not caused a single change in the laws, policies, actions, government organizations, or law enforcement practices involved in the ecology or animals. And in fact, it’s worded so vaguely that it can do very little to effect change.

First of all, despite the constitution, there are still ZERO animal welfare laws here. That did not change with the passing of the constitution. We proposed to the government that animal welfare policies be brought to the Galapagos, but many (not all, fortunately) of those government offices resisted, and some even laughed in response.


On each island, you’ll see many roosters tethered on the streets. Tethered roosters are being trained for cockfights.

Let us examine the constitution further:

“Art. 4. The State will apply precaution and restriction measures in all the activities that can lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of the ecosystems or the permanent alteration of the natural cycles. “

Again, this sounds good, but it is worded in a way that demands that zero government offices do or change absolutely any of their policies. To illustrate: When I visited Isabela Island, the largest island in all the Galapagos, I proposed to some people in the municipality at the time, that they increase the fine for breaking conservation laws, in light of this new vote. Their response, literally, was, “No. People won’t want to pay it if we raise it that much.” Despite the new constitution, the ecology laws were still based on what the public wanted at the time.

Many of the people who ran the Galapagos are politicians who wanted to get re-elected, so they worked hard to give the people what they wanted. And at that time, the people wanted more park land to clear and develop for new houses, more fishing rights, more rights to own cats and dogs that destroy the flora and fauna of the national park, more and bigger boats to use for tourism and fishing, more hotels to work at in the middle of prime park land, more supplies imported on giant cargo ships to make more buildings and shops, more airports carved through park lands, more docks carved out of rare mangroves, more gasoline to fuel more cars, more meat products despite the national park regulations, and as many modern conveniences as the rest of the world has.

And the government had been delivering to the people in spades. For weeks now, long after the new constitution was passed, some people in the municipality had been constructing new tourist docks here in Puerto Ayora, destroying the last vestige of the city’s coast that was not developed. They have not even finished building one-quarter of it yet, but they have already walled off the area and dumped countless dumptrucks full of rocks and stone into the walled harbor, filling it up to the walls, and killing all the rare iguanas, endemic crabs, rays, and pufferfish that we used to enjoy watching in that part of the harbor a few weeks ago. The new docks, which will eliminate a huge area of the port that sea lions lived and hunted in, will accommodate well over four times the ships that the current docks can handle. The people making the docks are some of the people who create official policies, and there is nothing in the constitution that actually demands they change these policies.


Puerto Ayora, October 29th, 2008. The spot where we watched iguanas, pufferfish, sea birds, and endemic Galapagos crabs a few days earlier. The municipality is walling off the area and all its marine inhabitants.


Puerto Ayora, October 29th, 2008. The municipality dumps many dumptrucks full of stone and dirt into the harbor. All the iguanas sitting there are now dead.


Puerto Ayora, November 4th, 2008. For many days after they wall in the area of fish and other marine life, the workers toss in many trucks-full of boulders into the water, to fill it up.


Puerto Ayora, November 12th, 2008. The area is completely filled.


Puerto Ayora, November 13th, 2008. The dock begins to expand further into the areas that sea lions live and hunt.


Puerto Ayora, November 17th, 2008. They fill in a lot more of the bay with rocks.


Puerto Ayora, November 27th, 2008. This length of dock, which will fill in a large part of the bay with more rocks, is only one-fourth of the final length of dock they plan to make.

And this is just one example; there are countless examples everywhere you look. Outside of this city’s limits, the municipality had been clear-cutting more and more acres of land to create new buildings, extending the size of the populated area of the Galapagos. Wildlife had been getting pushed back and back.

And, frankly, despite these progressive passages in the new constitution, there’s another much less advertised but equally as powerful statement counteracting those progressive passages.

“Art. 5. The persons, people, communities and nationalities will have the right to benefit from the environment and form natural wealth that will allow wellbeing.”

If the National Park catches a poacher, the poacher (who can be a foreigner or Ecuadorian) can invoke the constitution stating he has the constitutional right to benefit from the environment. And although people argue the constitution could mean this or that, its actual meaning will be a mystery until the Supreme Court makes a ruling on it. But considering how frequently Ecuador passes new constitutions, all this arguing could be a moot point before the issue has a chance to be considered by the courts.


If someone wants to improve farm animal health standards on Galapagos, they have to appeal to many levels of government, despite the positive wording of the constitution.

Now, so far, I’ve only talked about when people actually do abide by the law. Unfortunately, a much bigger problem is how some individuals in the government break already existing conservation laws. That’s a problem the new constitution won’t be able to address.

Local Corruption

Mayors, municipalities, and other powerful political figures had often been caught and occasionally even convicted of horrendous crimes against the environment, but they remained in office. For instance, the mayor of Isabela had been arrested five times for absolutely decimating the Galapagos. He bulldozed an entire beach of nesting marine iguanas and their eggs (eliminating an entire year of unique marine iguanas) because he said the egg mounds made the beach look lumpy; he flattened the beach to throw a party there that night. He used (and is currently using) Galapagos National Park lands to dump all the island’s garbage; batteries, plastics, engines, medical waste, toxic chemicals, everything. To keep maintenance costs for rich millionaires on the island low, he runs their sewage pipes into the national park. To list all his environmental atrocities would take days. Yet, no matter how many times he’s arrested or even convicted, he has not been removed from office or punished.


Garbage men dump trash into the National Park in Isabela. I was warned by the municipality not to let them see me photograph them, since they may get angry and come after me.

Another prominent Galapaganean political figure who is running for mayor of Puerto Ayora (capital of Santa Cruz Island), was caught using her roof to dry illegally poached sea cucumbers (incidentally, her famous career quote was, “There is only ONE endangered species in the Galapagos. The PEOPLE!”). On Santa Cruz Island, some people in the municipality recently illegally sold national park land to the public, further extending the borders of populated areas into protected lands. And just a couple weeks ago, a tuna purse-netting ship came to harbor.

It’s completely illegal for pure-netting tuna ships to be here. It’s illegal for ANY large fishing boat to be in the Galapagos. I hired a local panga driver to take me close to the ship so I could take photos of it. He refused to go too close to it. When I asked why, he said it’s because the target vessel was an illegal poaching vessel that paid off the military to be able to be here, and to start killing dolphins and tuna once it leaves this harbor. And if he took the panga too close to the poaching vessel, the poachers would get angry and possibly violent. Poachers who illegally kill dolphins in the national park had absolutely no fear of operating in broad daylight. The locals who wanted to stay within the bounds of the law were the ones who are afraid to go near the poaching operations.


The Rocio, a tuna purse-netting ship. Its presence here in the Galapagos is illegal.


The crew of the Rocio casually prepare to kill dolphins and tuna illegally in the National Park.

The same owners of that boat brought their tuna boat to this same harbor in 2004, where it was discovered they had 35 dead dolphins and 3 dead tuna on board (so they basically illegally murdered 35 dolphins to catch 3 tuna). Sea Shepherd, which had a ship here in 2004, followed them out of the harbor back then and discovered them poaching in the national park. However, the poaching vessel called the Ecuadorian navy to complain about the Sea Shepherd ship, and the navy of the time called the Sea Shepherd ship on behalf of the poaching vessel. And that time’s navy kicked Sea Shepherd out of the Park for the crime of interfering with an illegal poaching vessel. Many of the locals, like ship tour guides who try to report poaching vessels when they see them, say they also feel the pain of this corruption and inaction.

There had been smaller and more ubiquitous examples of this corruption. For instance, it’s completely illegal to have catch and release fishing programs in the Galapagos. Yet, on the main road of the main city of Santa Cruz Island, you could see one of the major tour shops advertising their catch and release tours. The owner of the shop was the brother of one of the former mayors of the town, so the police at the time made no effort to move against him, even long after the new constitution was passed.


The Ninfa dive shop, on the main road of the Galapagos’ biggest city.


The front door of the Ninfa dive shop, advertising the Release Me catch-and-release dive trips.

That, in a nutshell, was the state of the Galapagos when I first arrived three months ago. Unfortunately, the Sea Shepherd office itself was also in a state of trouble starting that year.

Sea Shepherd Galapagos

Sea Shepherd and Ecuador have a very long and complicated history together. Sea Shepherd’s task is to expose and stop illegal poaching and smuggling. The problem was, the military and governments of the Galapagos back then were the ones trafficking these illegally poached goods. Thus, to put it mildly, Sea Shepherd and the government of Ecuador had often not gotten along.

The Ecuadorian military trafficked goods that were illegally poached from the Galapagos, and delivered them to foreign buyers, who were usually Chinese. For foreign poaching ships (most often Costa Rican), the Ecuadorian military protected these ships from Galapagos Park Rangers or from Sea Shepherd ships trying to stop the poaching.

The man in charge of the Sea Shepherd office here prior to this year was a man named Sean O’Hearn. He was extremely effective in his role, which caused endless headaches to the corrupt people in government at the time. He was deported initially in 2000, and then again last year.


Sean O’Hearn, during one of the raids he lead on a shark fin poaching warehouse.

In 2007, O’Hearn lead raids that ended up confiscating 90,000 illegally poached shark fins, and 20,000 illegally poached sea cucumbers. He exposed so much evidence that the Ecuadorian military of the time was trafficking this contraband, that the commandant of the military had to resign or be arrested. Many people were arrested for O’Hearn’s investigations, including the mayor of Isabela.

Then, Ecuadorian President Correa got false news that O’Hearn was breaking into fishermen’s homes and stealing fish. And even though that was a pretty silly rumor to spread about a vegan organization (and conveniently timed), it was the final straw for many members of government, which then sought to deport O’Hearn again. O’Hearn had to go into hiding.


Captain Alex Cornelissen, left, next to Captain Paul Watson, right.

Last year, after O’Hearn fled the country, Captain Alex Cornelissen was sent to be the new head of Sea Shepherd Galapagos. He came here completely alone, with absolutely no knowledge transfer from the old head of the office, and with every government office (including every licensing and registration office) in Ecuador blacklisting Sea Shepherd by order of the federal government. Alex’s main campaign for most of the year was to try and maneuver through the law so our office could simply keep its doors open. Then, in September, I arrived.

The next blog post next Monday will cover the start of the campaign.

5 Comments

  1. Comment by

    eatingconsciously

    on #

    This is a great post! I think Sea Shepherd is doing some of the most amazing work right now and we need to all get behind these issues.

  2. Comment by

    Ann

    on #

    Great post. So informative. I wonder why it is only getting crowded in the last 10 years and not before that.

  3. Comment by

    tanyapetrovna

    on #

    Good job Sea Shepherd! Thanks for keeping us posted. We have to keep the message/information out there.

  4. Comment by

    Veganne

    on #

    It’s excellent to see more posts by Tod Emko. I started a “Fans of Tod Emko” page on Facebook. If you are so inclined, please join and keep up with what the fearless vegan pirate is up to. Go Tod!

  5. Comment by

    sriram

    on #

    this is sad though not too surprising. most third world countries have good laws on the books but seldom enforced properly – India has seen a big decline in the tiger population despite stringent laws against poaching. was thinking of visiting galapagos this summer/fall but now wondering if i shld cancel even though i won’t add to the clutter – wonder if lp is aware of the issues raised here

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