Marine Invasive Species: a potential threat to the Galapagos Marine Reserve

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The red algae, Asparagopsis taxiformis, that is already in the GMR.

The term "invasive species" for many could bring to mind scenes from a Hollywood movie involving aliens invading the planet. Unfortunately, this is a real problem, whose main characters - the invaders - can be animals, plants or other organisms from our own planet. These unwanted guests usually arrive at places outside their natural range, aided by direct or indirect human intervention and then become established while generating negative ecological, economic and health impacts.

Globally, it is recognized that when it comes to islands, invasive species are the main cause for species extinction. Invasive species compete for habitat with native species, displacing or substituting them - sometimes changing whole habitats and endangering entire ecosystems. There are also harmful aspects to human activity, acting as pests or pathogens to crops or domestic animals, and spreading allergic or infectious agents, which may involve a great cost to the local and regional economy.

Residents of the Galapagos Islands are very familiar with these species, as locals have been able to closely see the harmful effects of at least some of them. Blackberry, goats, African snails and quinine, are just a few examples among many invasive species that are already on the islands and with which significant efforts have been made to control and eradicate.

Invasive species also exist in the ocean. Because these are less visible than specimens on land, very little is known about their impacts and ability to reach and settle in an area, but over time they have become increasingly more important.

Marine invasive species are a potential threat to the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR), due to several reasons such as an increase in marine traffic (international, national and local) which in the last 30 years has developed in the archipelago; climate change; and the marine environment connectivity. For GMR ecosystems and biodiversity, the invasion of marine species is an unknown risk and a management challenge that is being urgently addressed by Ecuadorian authorities.

Since 2012, given the threats posed by invasive species to the GMR, the CDF has lead the GMR Marine Invasive Species program. This has been carried out through a multi-institutional project with the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD), the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency (ABG) the Naval Oceanographic Institute (INOCAR), the Ministry of Transport and Public Works (MTOP) and the UK Universities of Southampton and Dundee. The aim of this project is to understand the risk posed by introduced and potential marine invasive species to the GMR and to minimize their negative impacts.

The project includes different activities coordinated between the institutions involved. Among the most important are: producing a base line on marine invasive species information; understanding through ocean currents circulation models the potential risk of invasive species spread in the GMR; implementing a monitoring and warning pilot system in the GMR; identifying maritime traffic in the Galapagos; building staff capacity; establishing an awareness program for the different users of the GMR and the general public.

Currently, thanks to this project it has been noted that six species with high potential to develop into invasives are already present in the GMR. Two examples are the algae Caulerpa racemosa and Asparagopsis taxiformis. A potentially invasive species that is not yet in the GMR but has been reported in mainland Ecuador and on the island of Malpelo (Colombia) in 2011-13 is the white octo coral Carijoa riisei.

Information resulting from this project will provide guidance to local authorities for the establishment of prevention, detection, quarantine and remediation (if necessary) measures, to significantly reduce the possibility of invasive species arrival and spread in the GMR.

This project is possible thanks to funding support from Darwin Initiative, Galapagos Conservancy and the Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic Fund.