By Susana Madera
Santa Cruz Island, Ecuador, Oct 16 (EFE).- The Galapagos Islands, a storehouse of biodiversity 1,000 km (600 mi) from the Ecuadorian mainland, face an insidious environmental threat in the form of the tiny bits of plastic detritus known as microplastics.
At first glance, the beach at Tortuga Bay on the island of Santa Cruz looks the very image of a tropical paradise, with soft, white sand bathed by Pacific waters.
But amid the grains of sand are microplastics that ride the ocean currents from distant shores to this South American archipelago, designated by UNESCO in 1978 as a World Heritage Site.
“It is a complete surprise that in the place that is perhaps the most protected in the world, with a population that covers only 0.2 percent of the protected land and maritime zone of the Galapagos, it is enough to sift the sand on the beach to find a heap of microplastics that – obviously – don’t come from the Galapagos,” European Union envoy Charles-Michel Geurts said during the EU Beach Cleanup.
The particles, though they are no bigger than a sesame seed, “do enormous damage,” the EU’s ambassador to Ecuador told Efe, pointing out that microplastics can affect humans via the food chain.
Experts have identified “seven species of fish consumed by humans with microplastics in their digestive track,” Galapagos National Park’s Jenifer Suarez said.
Present for the EU Beach Cleanup was Ecuador’s environment minister, Gustavo Manrique, who said that 80 percent of the trash that washes up in the Galapagos comes from other countries.
“We have local problems that we can only combat with global responsibilities,” he told Efe.
Sifting the sand to remove microplastics is a painstaking process that becomes more difficult when the beach is rocky.
“If you want to use a suction device, you run the risk of also taking the invertebrate creatures that live in the vicinity,” Suarez said. “It’s very difficult. The majority of the beaches around Galapagos have microplastics.”
Sea wolves, tortoises, marine iguanas and cormorants are among “36 native species that have been affected by the plastic,” she said.
“It was super sad,” Suarez said as she recounted an experience from three years ago when she encountered a cormorant nest made entirely of garbage.
The park management is working with domestic and international partners on campaign aimed at collecting refuse before it fragments into microplastics.
“I have participated in coastal cleanups and sometimes, we have gone to places that aren’t inhabited and even there we have found a lot of trash, and that has quite an impact on me,” 17-year-old Jaly Angulo told Efe at Tortuga Bay.
“People still don’t have awareness about the great problem that microplastics represent,” added Maria del Carmen Vizcaino, an official with Fundacion Charles Darwin.
The archipelago – which consists of 13 major islands, six smaller islands and scores of islets and rocks – was made famous by the 19th-century British naturalist, whose observations of life on the islands inspired him to develop his theory about evolution, natural selection and the origin of species. EFE sm/dr