May 24, 2024


As our small fishing boat slows to a halt in a shallow bay south-east of Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, in the Galápagos Islands, a green turtle surfaces next to us, followed by a second, then a third a few metres away. A spotted eagle ray glides underneath the vessel.

The skipper, Don Nelson, steps on to the black volcanic reef, slippery with algae. We follow, past exposed mangrove roots and up on to higher ground. Pelicans swooping into the trees and small birds, perching on branches, ignore our approach.

This remote archipelago still hosts the unique species such as giant tortoises and finches that inspired the naturalist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution almost two centuries ago, and it is impossible not to be struck by the apparent harmony with which animals coexist with humans here.

But then, up ahead, a jarring sight: a marine iguana, a notable Galápagos species found nowhere else in the world, sits atop a mound of plastic litter – fishing buoys, oil drums, household containers and drinks bottles – pushed on to the reef by high spring tides. The prehistoric-looking reptile, classed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is among the species here most at risk from plastic.

“These reefs are resting places for pelicans and marine iguanas,” says Mariana Vera, Galápagos programme manager of Conservation International. “There are a lot of turtles because it is the nesting season. It is overwhelming and sad to see them full of plastic.”

Mariana Vera, Galápagos programme manager of Conservation International, removes plastic fishing ropes wrapped around mangrove roots. Photograph: Joshua Vela Fonseca/The Guardian

Research has found that most of the plastic washed up here comes from Peru, Ecuador and China. Plastic originating in Asia is unlikely to have reached the Galápagos by ocean currents, according to a 2019 study, which suggests that items with Asian labels are likely to have come from nearby fishing boats.

Globally, about 20% of plastic pollution in the ocean comes from maritime sources, but in the Galápagos, although estimates vary greatly, that figure could be as high as 40%, according to research due to be published by the Galápagos marine reserve and the Galápagos Conservation Trust.

It has been four years since news of a massive fishing fleet of hundreds of mostly Chinese vessels surrounding the edge of this reserve shocked the world. It led to a vow, from the then president of Ecuador, Lenín Moreno, to protect what he described as “a seedbed of life for the entire planet”, and various diplomatic agreements between the countries.

Since then, the Chinese fishing fleet has reportedly kept a greater distance from Ecuador’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), an area extending 200 nautical miles beyond its coast, throughout which it has jurisdiction over marine resources.

But the illegal dumping of plastic waste from its fishing vessels in the high seas – outside the EEZ – along with the other plastic from mainland Latin America, continues. “The problem is constant,” says Rodrigo Robalino, the Galápagos national park’s environmental manager, who accompanies us.

The islands are the second most important nesting and feeding area for marine turtles, listed as endangered by the IUCN, after Mexico.

Rodrigo Robalino, the Galápagos marine reserve’s environmental manager. Photograph: Joshua Vela Fonseca/The Guardian

“We find pollution like this on all the islands but there are hotspots where the tides and currents gather,” says Robalino. The windward shores have a heavier burden of plastic.

We walk past huge columns of cactus to a further tideline of sun-bleached mangrove roots, strewn with mainly clear plastic drinks bottles.

The pollution is recent, Robalino says, because it is clear, with no barnacles attached. We count 21 bottles in all, among strands of fishing line. Six, including a soap dispenser, have Asian labels; three are Peruvian, with brands including Inca Kola, a joint Peruvian and Coca-Cola brand, and Sporade, made by AJE and sold all over Latin America. Those with labels include international brands including Dasani, made by Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo’s Gatorade.

“These plastic bottles are coming from other countries in the region,” says Robalino. “But also from international fishing fleets, including the Chinese fleet that surrounds the marine reserve.”Twice a week, the reserve organises clean-ups of the four inhabited islands: Isabela, Floreana, San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz. Plastic is shipped to Guayaquil, 600 miles away in Ecuador, to be recycled or landfilled.

Last year, they collected 13m tonnes. For the more remote islands (there are 13 major islands and many more smaller ones), only occasional clean-ups are possible. They are more difficult to access and it can cost up to $2,000 (£1,600) and take up to 15 days to get there, clean up the beaches and return. From May to November, weather conditions make it impossible to reach many islands. For Robalino, Vera and the fishers and community volunteers who take part, the clean ups are a sisyphean task. But they have no choice.

A yellow warbler nest perches on its nest, made out of plastic as well as grass, on the Galápagos Islands. Photograph: Joshua Vela Fonseca/The Guardian

“If we don’t do it, the plastic breaks down into fibres that birds often use for nests, and then into microplastics, which can be carried by the wind or go into the ocean,” says Robalino. Contaminated with chemicals, microplastics can be toxic and cause genetic damage to marine life and humans when ingested.

The waters around the Galápagos islands, which were designated a Unesco heritage site in 1978, are among the richest on Earth for biodiversity, partly due to their location amid three major ocean currents. The largest, the Humboldt current, sweeps cold, nutrient-rich water from Antarctica along the coasts of Chile and Peru, before turning west to the islands.

Thanks to the protection offered by the marine reserve, biodiversity on the islands, 97% of which are uninhabited, remains relatively undisturbed. But the currents, with their rich nutrients, have led to two of the largest threats: overfishing and plastic pollution.

“Currents are a source of life in the Galápagos,” says Nicolás Moity, a marine ecologist at the Charles Darwin Foundation on Santa Cruz. “They brought the species here at the beginning. The early giant tortoises came from the mainland as small tortoises and evolved here.

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“You have warm and cold currents intermingling, creating an amazing plethora of life. You have penguins and corals in the same place.

“But now, in this globalised world, the currents are bringing plastics to the Galápagos,” he says.

Asian labels found on water bottles along the tideline in Santa Cruz, probably from fishing vessels. Photograph: Joshua Vela Fonseca/The Guardian

Moity, who is working with the reserve and environmental organisations to identify how the plastic accumulation sites affect biodiversity so they can better target clean-ups, says that after some plastic-picking trips, “you come back three days later and you see the same”.

Three years ago, Moity examined sea urchins and found that 75% of them had ingested microplastics. “Microplastics get ingested by everything from zooplankton to bigger animals – and we don’t know the effect,” he says.

Many of the animals most at risk from plastic entanglement or ingestion are also under threat from other human activities, including degraded habitats and climate breakdown: the critically endangered Santa Cruz giant tortoises, endangered green turtles, vulnerable marine iguanas, endangered Galápagos sea lions and whale sharks, according to a paper in 2023. Earlier this year, another study showed giant tortoises were eating plastic, mistaking it for food, with
up to 86% of the debris found in tortoise faeces being plastic.

Ecuador has bid to host the signing of the UN plastics treaty, the first legally binding global treaty to halt plastic waste, in the Galápagos. The latest talks towards the treaty are under way this week in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, until 29 April. The aim is to complete negotiations by the end of 2024 and for the treaty to be signed in 2025.

Dr Jen Jones, chief executive of the UK-based Galápagos Conservation Trust, is working with the marine reserve to finalise a five-year study on plastic pollution. She expects to present some of the findings at this week’s talks.

“We have looked at multi-year datasets from clean-ups, looking at all plastics, bottles fishing gear, such as ropes and other items,” says Jones. She found a higher percentage of the plastic – “at least 40%” – came from maritime sources than previous research on plastic bottles suggested, which put the figure at about 13%.

The trust is also hosting a mini-summit for small islands in the Pacific, which suffer a similarly unfair burden of plastic pollution as the Galápagos, to highlight the islanders’ role in protecting the world’s biodiversity and to urge more powerful nations to address the unfair burden of plastic pollution.

“This is a social justice issue,” says Jones.

If the plastic is not collected, it breaks down into microplastics, which are ingested by wildlife. Photograph: Joshua Vela Fonseca/The Guardian

Senegal, Peru and Rwanda have also put forward bids to the UN at the treaty negotiations to have the resultant agreement signed in their countries.

The incoming chair of the talks in Canada, Luis Vayas Valdivieso, who is also the Ecuadorian ambassador to the UK, has an impartial role in the negotiations. But Valdivieso, who has recently returned from Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, a Chilean territory in Polynesia, where he witnessed plastic pollution, says he understands the unfair burden islanders and small-island nations face.

“I see the concern from the islands and the people from the islands,” he says. “They are making huge efforts. In the Galápagos and other islands they have special legislation – they don’t use single-use plastics, but still they are seeing pollution.

“You can have the best national legislation in the world, to ban plastics. But if you don’t have a global agreement, it won’t work.”





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