Invasive Marine Species in the Galapagos Marine Reserve

Invasive Marine Species in the Galapagos Marine Reserve

Marine Invasive Species: Prevention, Detection and Management in the Galapagos Marine Reserve

This project is currently Active

Marine invasive species can threaten biological diversity, human health and/or economic activity.

Globally, marine invasions have increased due to commerce, shipping and tourism. Invasions occur when species are transported from one region to another and become established in the new environment. These undesired guests compete for space and can displace and harm the populations of native species.

The Galapagos Islands are under threat from possible marine invasive species, given the connectivity that exists with the Eastern Tropical Pacific, the increase in tourism and associated marine traffic and the effect of extreme climatic events such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The CDF scientists, together with our collaborators, are developing risk assessments along with protocols for the prevention, early detection and management of marine invasive species in the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

Our Research Team

Inti Keith

Principal Investigator

Inti has worked with the CDRS in different marine projects since 2010, including shark tagging, sea turtle monitoring and ecological monitoring before completing her PhD on Marine Invasive Species...

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William Bensted-Smith has been with the Marine Invasive Species Programme since November of 2019 and principally focuses on the physical oceanographic side it. His work centres on predicting the...

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Rosita Calderón Barrera was born in Galapagos and at the age of 18 left the islands to pursue her university studies. She graduated in Biology from the University of Guayaquil. Her first forays into...

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Patricia Isabela Tapia

Project Assistant

Patricia Isabela was born and raised in the Galapagos Islands, surrounded by the World's most famous natural laboratory of evolution. She had the opportunity to follow her passion and study in the...

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Project Details

How and why did we start?
This programme originated from the pressing need for a comprehensive study of marine bioinvasions in Galapagos, which was a newly evolving field at the time. The Marine Invasive Species Programme for prevention, detection and management in GMR started in 2012, led by CDF. Our programme was developed jointly with the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD), The Agency for Regulation and Control of Biosecurity and Quarantine for Galapagos (ABG), the Naval Oceanographic Institute (INOCAR), the National Directorate of Aquatic Spaces (DIRNEA), and the Universities of Southampton and Dundee in the UK and thanks to funding from the Darwin Initiative UK and Galapagos Conservancy.

Why is it important to better understand and mitigate the risk of the introduction of invasive species in the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR)?
The Galapagos Islands are recognized for their iconic biodiversity. In 1959, 97% of the archipelago’s land area was declared a National Park, with human settlements restricted to the remaining 3% (DPNG, 2014). “The Enchanted Islands” as they were also called, were then declared the first ever World Natural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978 and a Biosphere Reserve in 1984 (UNESCO World Heritage Centre, 2020). Early conservation actions were oriented towards terrestrial ecosystems. Nevertheless, the first steps towards marine conservation and management were taken in 1974 through the Land Management Plan, which recommended some level of protection of the marine area around the islands, mostly due to the dependence of many terrestrial organisms on the sea for food (Piu, 2003). Consequently, in 1986 a Marine Resources Reserve was established (Kenchington, 1989) and in 1998 the GMR was created, increasing the level and area of protection (DPNG, 2014).

The GMR (133,000 km2) is the largest reserve in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP) region and one of the largest marine reserves in the world. Accordingly, in Galapagos conservation is of high priority and thus, this place has received much attention at a national and global level (González et al., 2008; Denkinger and Vinueza, 2014; Carlton, Keith and Ruiz, 2019). In fact, they have developed some of the most advanced programs in the world in terms of conservation and biosecurity. The archipelago is one of the most studied places on the planet , although many evolutionary and ecological processes are still unknown (Lavoie et al., 2007; Walsh and Mena, 2013; Tapia et al., 2019). Historically, very little is known about these processes in the marine environment and indeed, this is true of almost all aspects of a particularly dangerous but often highly underestimated threat: marine invasive species (Walsh and Mena, 2013; Denkinger and Vinueza, 2014).

Green algae Caulerpa racemosa and the introduced ascidian Botrylloides niger. Photo by Sofía Green.
Green algae Caulerpa racemosa and the introduced ascidian Botrylloides niger. Photo by Sofía Green.

Why are invasive species a threat? 

Invasive species are organisms that harm the native and endemic species in a new environment where they are not native. The introduction of alien species is the second most important driver of biodiversity loss globally, after habitat destruction (Keith et al., 2015) and the most important driver of biodiversity loss for oceanic islands (Brook, Sodhi & Bradshaw, 2008). Therefore, it represents a major threat to marine biodiversity. Furthermore, the introduction rate of new invasive species is higher than ever before and there is no evidence of it decreasing (IPBES, 2019). Although not all introduced species become invasive, the ones that do become invasive dominate the native and endemic flora and fauna (Bax et al., 2003). Some of the main impacts caused by invasive species apart from biodiversity loss are ecological alterations, disease propagation and they can also affect economic development and human health (Torres & Mena, 2018).

How do invasive species move to different places?
Invasive species can be transported from one place to another and colonize new territories through a variety of means. Some of the main vectors of introduction are marine traffic (species adhered to boat hulls or are transported in ballast water), aquaculture (intentionally introduced and released or accidentally escape), migratory species (attached to species that migrate long distances), ocean currents (naturally transported by currents), and ocean currents can transport marine debris that can transport organisms (encrusted on plastic or other floating debris) (Keith et al., 2019). This elucidates the role of novel artificial habitats on the increasing rate of species introduction. These are suitable habitats for invasive species, particularly benthic invertebrates, which may be sessile (sedentary) (Carlton, Keith & Ruiz, 2019). Climate change can also be a driver, as it facilitates the dispersal and establishment of introduced species and creates opportunities for them to become invasive (Bax et al., 2003; Keith and Toral, 2015; Keith et al., 2016; Torres and Mena, 2018).

What do we do?

We primarily focus on the fouling (encrusting) community on artificial habitats as a model system, especially because artificial habitats are hotspots for biological invasions around the world (Ruiz et al., 2009). We use Subtidal Ecological Monitoring survey data to evaluate the status of bioinvasions in the GMR, testing for spillover of introduced species from anthropogenic habitats (e.g., docks and moorings) to natural habitats across the archipelago. More broadly, we aim to understand the risk (extent and impact) of non-native marine species already established in the GMR, as a model to evaluate invasion dynamics and management strategies for island ecosystems and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). We conduct research on marine invasive species, with a focus on the prevention, detection and management of these species in the GMR.
A range of methods are utilized including:

The deployment of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) settlement plates in harbors in order to passively collect benthic invertebrates (which settle on these) to create a baseline of the species present in the GMR.

PVC settlement plate ready to be deployed. Photo by Rosita Calderón.
PVC settlement plate ready to be deployed. Photo by Rosita Calderón.
Inti Keith attaching settlement plate to mooring buoy. Photo by Geiner Golfin.
Inti Keith attaching settlement plate to mooring buoy. Photo by Geiner Golfin.

After a certain period, these plates are retrieved and analyzed to identify all the organisms colonizing each plate. This is a standardized protocol developed and used by the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) for the study of marine invasive species around the world and is one of the methods used in this programme.

A: Rosita Calderón retrieving a PVC settlement plate enclosed in a cage to avoid predators. B-C: assembled settlement plates fully colonized by benthic invertebrates after three months of being deployed. D-E: Settlement plates only (disassembled) fully colonized upon retrieval. Photos by Rosita Calderón and Patricia Isabela Tapia.
A: Rosita Calderón retrieving a PVC settlement plate enclosed in a cage to avoid predators. B-C: assembled settlement plates fully colonized by benthic invertebrates after three months of being deployed. D-E: Settlement plates only (disassembled) fully colonized upon retrieval. Photos by: Rosita Calderón and Patricia Isabela Tapia.
Inti Keith conducting an immediate live analysis of each plate. Photo by Rosita Calderón.
Inti Keith conducting an immediate live analysis of each plate. Photo by Rosita Calderón.

The collection of oceanographic data at our study sites. This facilitates understanding of diversity patterns and why certain species are present in certain areas.

A-B: Portable multimeter for water salinity, temperature and dissolved oxygen. C: Temperature data logger attached to an assembled settlement plate. D: Sofía Green using a Secchi Disk to measure water transparency or turbidity at one of our study sites. Photos by Rosita Calderón.
A-B: Portable multimeter for water salinity, temperature and dissolved oxygen. C: Temperature data logger attached to an assembled settlement plate. D: Sofía Green using a Secchi Disk to measure water transparency or turbidity at one of our study sites. Photos by Rosita Calderón.

The performance of DNA metabarcoding, which is used to identify the organisms that we were not able to identify taxonomically and to confirm and double-check those which we were able to identify.

Rosita Calderón preparing representative samples from each plate for further DNA metabarcoding analysis. Photo by Inti Keith.
Rosita Calderón preparing representative samples from each plate for further DNA metabarcoding analysis. Photo by Inti Keith.

Conducting Subtidal Ecological Monitoring throughout the GMR to create an extensive database of the species present and to provide information on the dynamics and magnitude of the fluctuations of this biota through space and time. This allows for efficient identification of changes in abundance and distribution of species already established and possible new introductions. It would also help to eventually answer questions about the effectiveness of the GMR as a protected area.

A: Wilson Íñiguez (left) and Inti Keith (right) carrying out the annual Subtidal Ecological Monitoring. B: Inti Keith surveying sessile organisms using a quadrat as part of the monitoring process. Photos by Sofía Green and Macarena Parra.
A: Wilson Íñiguez (left) and Inti Keith (right) carrying out the annual Subtidal Ecological Monitoring. B: Inti Keith surveying sessile organisms using a quadrat as part of the monitoring process. Photos by Sofía Green and Macarena Parra.

Monitoring marine debris across the GMR by collecting and identifying any attached organisms. We do this to allow for early detection of introduced species and to assess the potential for marine debris (particularly plastic), to transport introduced species to Galapagos. We work in close collaboration with the GNPD, Conservation International (CI) and Galapagos Conservation Trust (GCT) on this component.

Stalked barnacles (Lepas anatifera) attached to a plastic bottle collected in the GMR. Photo by Sofía Green.
Stalked barnacles (Lepas anatifera) attached to a plastic bottle collected in the GMR. Photo by Sofía Green.

We expect the results of our studies to contribute to the prevention, early detection and rapid response to possible marine invasions in the GMR.

The main goal of our project is to minimize the negative impacts of invasive species on marine biodiversity, ecosystem services and health of the GMR.

Our results

In 2015 we created the Action Plan to Minimize Risks of Marine Invasive Species Introduction into the Galapagos Marine Reserve as an outcome from our International Workshop on Marine Bio-invasions in Tropical Island Ecosystems (Keith & Toral, 2015).

Thanks to the deployment of our PVC settlement plates and the annual ecological monitoring, in 2015 and 2016 two invasive invertebrates, which are known globally, were discovered in Galapagos: the “spaghetti bryozoan” from the Caribbean Amathia verticillata (Mccann et al., 2015) and the Asian ascidian Ascidia sydneiensis (Keith et al., 2019).

Amathia verticillata colonies attached to mangrove roots in Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island. Photo by Linda McCann.
Amathia verticillata colonies attached to mangrove roots in Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island. Photo by Linda McCann.
The Asian ascidian Ascidia sydneiensis attached to a settlement plate. Photo by Jim Carlton.
The Asian ascidian Ascidia sydneiensis attached to a settlement plate. Photo by Jim Carlton.


Furthermore, based on research to date, we now know that there are at least 53 introduced species in the GMR, which is 10 times higher than the number previously known (5). These remarkable results were presented in the form of five scientific papers published in 2019 in collaboration with our research associates. These publications report 53 introduced marine invertebrates and 33 cryptogenic invertebrates, algae and halophytes in Galapagos. The species recognized as introduced are reported along with their description, origin, as well as the probable means by which they arrived to Galapagos. Some of the 53 species were new detections for Galapagos and others were previously categorized as native, but after revising their status, they are now treated as introduced (Carlton, Keith & Ruiz, 2019; Calder et al., 2019; Keppel et al., 2019; Lambert, 2019; Mccann et al., 2019).

Documented number of non-native marine invertebrate species in the GMR per taxonomic group. Shown are the previous baseline of five species recognized as introduced (black), new detections from 2015-2016 field surveys (vertical lines), and species previously recognized as native or endemic but now recognized as introduced due to our studies (dots). Taken from Carlton, Keith & Ruiz, 2019.
Documented number of non-native marine invertebrate species in the GMR per taxonomic group. Shown are the previous baseline of five species recognized as introduced (black), new detections from 2015-2016 field surveys (vertical lines), and species previously recognized as native or endemic but now recognized as introduced due to our studies (dots). Taken from Carlton, Keith & Ruiz, 2019.

In 2015, we started collecting marine debris every week at Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island, and identifying any attached organisms. This was the beginning of our marine debris monitoring program. In 2016, we expanded our monitoring to the entire Galapagos Archipelago. We also created a marine debris drop-off point at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, where anybody can bring marine debris that they find on any beach in Galapagos. To have as many samples as possible, we partnered with organizations that run coastal clean ups across the archipelago as well as dive and naturalist guides associations. We also distributed informative leaflets to encourage members of the local community to bring the marine debris that they find at beaches. Unfortunately, most of it is plastic.

GNPD rangers carrying out a coastal clean-up at a non-visitor site. We participate on these clean ups organized by the GNPD. B: Our marine debris drop-off point at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island. Photos by Sofía Green.
GNPD rangers carrying out a coastal clean-up at a non-visitor site. We participate on these clean ups organized by the GNPD. B: Our marine debris drop-off point at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island. Photos by Sofía Green.

As a result, until February 2019, we analysed 1442 samples collected across the islands and recorded 11267 individual organisms, representing 8 groups (Table 1). Accordingly, we have created a database of all the organisms found, classified by island and type of plastic debris.

Table 1. Weight in grams and number of individual organisms found on four categories of plastic debris. Adapted from Keith et al., 2019.
Table 1. Weight in grams and number of individual organisms found on four categories of plastic debris. Adapted from Keith et al., 2019.

 We also found out that roughly 25% of all plastic debris found at beaches in Galapagos is colonized by at least one animal or plant (Keith et al., 2019).

We also found out that roughly 25% of all plastic debris found at beaches in Galapagos is colonized by at least one animal or plant (Keith et al., 2019).
A-B-C-D: Plastic debris with sessile organisms attached to them, collected across the coastal areas of Galapagos. Photo by Jess Howard.

Furthermore, in 2017 we started to work in collaboration with the Coco Island National Park, Costa Rica, in order to replicate the methodology of using PVC settlement plates there. The objective is to minimize the negative impacts that introduced and invasive species can cause on the biodiversity of the Marine Protected Area of the Coco Island National Park. The data obtained from the sampling and subtidal ecological monitoring aids the establishment of protocols for prevention, early detection and rapid response for possible bioinvasions. We recently completed the third phase of this collaboration in 2019 and have already put in place the foundations for the beginnings of the next phase in 2020. We aim to not only support in the management of their protected area but also to establish a baseline inventory of the invasive species located there and their distribution across the region. This collaboration is of significant importance due to the connectivity between marine reserves within the ETP region. Many introduced and/or invasive species present in other islands and countries within this region are potential invasive species for the Galapagos Islands. Thus, joining efforts with other Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and institutions is imperative for the conservation of marine ecosystems in the ETP region.

Monitoring team 2019, (left to right) Gail Ashton, Sofía Green, Esther Saborio, Inti Keith, Josué Morales, Geiner Golfín, Coco Island-Costa Rica. Photo by Keylor Morales Panigua
Monitoring team 2019, (left to right) Gail Ashton, Sofía Green, Esther Saborio, Inti Keith, Josué Morales, Geiner Golfín, Coco Island-Costa Rica. Photo by Keylor Morales Panigua

Another important contribution of our programme is our collaboration with the Marine Invertebrates’ Collection (MCCDRS). Many of the specimens that we collect as part of our work are kept at the MCCDRS, which is the newest of the Charles Darwin Foundation’s Natural History Collections. This is highly relevant as natural history collections are very important for research and education. They play a fundamental role in our understanding of biodiversity, and evolution as well as changes in species and ecosystems in the past, present and even the future (Lister & Climate Change Research Group, 2011).

Lenyn Betancourt from the MCCDRS demonstrating a preserved crab to a group of students from a local school. CDF Photo Archive.
Lenyn Betancourt from the MCCDRS demonstrating a preserved crab to a group of students from a local school. CDF Photo Archive.

We currently continue studying invasive species that are already present in the GMR to measure their impact, as well as increasing our sample size and study sites in order to identify the potential threats. We have deployed settlement plates in new sites and are currently replicating the methodology. Thereby, we expect the known number of introduced and invasive species in Galapagos to increase significantly as work continues. We are also working on the development of risk assessments of potential marine invasive species for Galapagos as well as combining existing ocean models for the ETP with particle tracking models. This will attempt to pinpoint areas at most risk from invasive larvae from both within and outside of the GMR.

Outreach and education

Wilson Íñiguez and Sofía Green explaining about the role of marine trash as an introduction vector for invasive species to students from a local school during an event for the International Day for Biological Diversity. Photo by Juan Manuel García.
Wilson Íñiguez and Sofía Green explaining about the role of marine debris as an introduction vector for invasive species to students from a local school during an event for the International Day for Biological Diversity. Photo by Juan Manuel García.

We believe that it is not only our responsibility as scientist to share our results and any information generated from our research to decision makers, but also to make this scientific information accessible to the wider public. We must involve local people in our research and conservation efforts. If we successfully get more people engaged, we can raise environmental awareness and therefore, achieve our goals more efficiently. Consequently, we have been part of many activities where we have showcased our methods and results to the local community and visitors.

Marina Salido explaining how boats are one of the main vectors for the introduction of marine invasive species during the CDF open house 2019. Photo by: Andrés Cruz.
Marina Salido explaining how boats are one of the main vectors for the introduction of marine invasive species during the CDF open house 2019. Photo by: Andrés Cruz.

Additionally, we have organized and participated in workshops, demonstrations, symposiums and conferences locally, nationally and internationally. 

Left to right: Jim Carlton, Inti Keith, Gregory Ruiz and Anson Hines (our collaborators from Williams College and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center) during the “International Workshop on Marine Bioinvasions and Biosecurity along the Eastern Tropical Pacific and the Southern Pacific: Establishing a Collaboration Network from Mexico to Chile”. Photo by Juan Manuel García.
Left to right: Jim Carlton, Inti Keith, Gregory Ruiz and Anson Hines (our collaborators from Williams College and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center) during the “International Workshop on Marine Bioinvasions and Biosecurity along the Eastern Tropical Pacific and the Southern Pacific: Establishing a Collaboration Network from Mexico to Chile”. Photo by Juan Manuel García.

Keywords: Marine Invasive Species, Bioinvasions, Galapagos Marine Reserve, Eastern Tropical Pacific, Biofouling, Marine Debris

Bibliographical References

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