Public Release:  Hope for Galapagos wildlife threatened by marine invaders

Increasing tourism and the spread of marine invasive non-native species is threatening the unique plant and marine life around the Galapagos Islands.

National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (UK)

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IMAGE: Ph.D. student Inti Keith, National Oceanography Centre, is shown surveying invasive seaweeds in the Galapagos. view more

Credit: Credit David Acuna, Charles Darwin Foundation

Increasing tourism and the spread of marine invasive non-native species is threatening the unique plant and marine life around the Galapagos Islands.

UK scientists from the Universities of Southampton and Dundee are currently investigating the extent of the problem following a grant from the UK Government's Darwin Initiative, which aims to protect biodiversity and promote sustainability around the world.

UK Environment Minister Richard Benyon said:

"The UK has played a major role in supporting the establishment of the Galapagos Marine Reserve and our Darwin Initiative has funded a range of important projects protecting and enhancing both marine and terrestrial wildlife.

"Invasive non-native species can cause huge damage to local ecosystems and I am delighted that action is being taken to monitor this threat."

Project leader Dr Ken Collins, Ocean and Earth Science of University of Southampton based at the National Oceanography Centre said:

"Tourism is partly to blame for the influx of invasive non-native species, due to the huge rise in ships and planes from mainland Ecuador bringing in pests. In recent years, it was realised that cargo ships were carrying disease-infected mosquitoes, which were attracted to the ship's bright white deck lights. Simply changing from conventional filament bulbs to yellow sodium lamps, along with fumigation in the hold has substantially reduced the threat.

"We are trying to protect marine biodiversity by identifying newly arrived species to the Galapagos, assessing if they have the potential to compete for space and overcome other species of algae and native corals."

White coral, which has already been reported off the mainland Ecuador coast (600 miles away), is also causing anxiety. It could easily hitch a lift on the frequent vessels supplying Galapagos tourists and residents. Already, two new algae species have been found in the Galapagos Marine Reserve, a World Heritage Site.

Another species causing concern and which has the potential to overwhelm natural populations is the Indian Ocean lionfish. This fish colonised the Caribbean through accidental release from an aquarium and has spread through the entire Caribbean in the last decade. Its rapacious appetite has led to the decimation of coral reef fish populations in the southern Caribbean. Lionfish can consume prey up to two thirds of their own length and data shows that they can eat 20 small wrasses in 30 minutes. Their stomachs can expand by up to 30 times in volume when consuming a large catch. The Panama Canal could provide a short cut to Ecuador's Pacific coast and then the Galapagos.

One of Ken Collin's PhD students is Fadilah Ali, who is at the University of Southampton studying how the lionfish is eating its way through coral reef fish populations in the southern Caribbean. For over a hundred years Southampton, one the UK's busiest ports has been receiving marine hitchhikers from around the world, changing the entire balance of its underwater marine plants and animals. One example is the Pacific Oyster, which is being studied in the Solent region by another of Ken's PhD students Steff Deane.

Prof Terry Dawson, SAGES Chair in Global Environmental Change at Dundee, added,

"Invasive species are becoming one of the greatest threats to biodiversity on a global scale. The Galapagos islands are particularly vulnerable due to the fact that much of the indigenous wildlife have evolved over millions of years in the absence of predators, competition, pests and diseases, which makes them very susceptible to the negative impacts of aggressive non-native species.

"We are very pleased to have Inti Keith, one of the staff of the Charles Darwin Research Station, registered with the University of Dundee to study for her PhD on this important topic. Her extensive local knowledge of the marine environment of the Galapagos Islands gives us a head start in developing the research to tackle the issue.

The team have recently returned from the Galapagos, where they met the Ecuadorian Navy and DIRNEA, the national maritime authority, to discuss control measures and helped take part in the first underwater survey of the Galapagos capital port.

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Notes to Editors

For more information contact National Oceanography Centre Press Officer Kim Marshall-Brown on 023-8059-6170 or email on kxm@noc.ac.uk.

Images of the researchers with lionfish and invasive algae are available from Dropbox, go to http://bit.ly/11GrNZI.

1. A previous Darwin Initiative funded project (1997-2000) supported the establishment of a new Galapagos Marine Management Plan that led to the declaration of Galapagos Marine Reserve as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This year the control of marine invasives is being incorporated into its management plan.

The UK Darwin Initiative is supporting this project, which is led by the Charles Darwin Foundation and the University of Southampton. Other collaborators are the Galapagos National Park Service, the Ecuadorian Navy's Oceanographic Institute, the Ecuadorian Biosecurity Agency, and the University of Dundee.

Further information on the Darwin Initiative projects can be found at darwin.defra.gov.uk/.

2. The National Oceanography Centre (NOC) is the UK's leading institution for integrated coastal and deep ocean research. NOC operates the Royal Research Ships James Cook and Discovery and develops technology for coastal and deep ocean research. Working with its partners NOC provides long-term marine science capability including: sustained ocean observing, mapping and surveying; data management and scientific advice.

NOC operates at two sites, Southampton and Liverpool, with the headquarters based in Southampton. Among the resources that NOC provides on behalf of the UK are the British Oceanographic Data Centre (BODC), the Marine Autonomous and Robotic Systems (MARS) facility, the National Tide and Sea Level Facility (NTSLF), the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (PSMSL) and British Ocean Sediment Core Research Facility (BOSCORF).

The National Oceanography Centre is wholly owned by the Natural Environment Research Council.

3. The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship across a wide range of subjects in engineering, science, social sciences, health and humanities.

With over 23,000 students, around 5000 staff, and an annual turnover well in excess of £435 million, the University of Southampton is acknowledged as one of the country's top institutions for engineering, computer science and medicine. It combines academic excellence with an innovative and entrepreneurial approach to research, supporting a culture that engages and challenges students and staff in their pursuit of learning.

The University is also home to a number of world-leading research centres including the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, the Optoelectronics Research Centre, the Institute for Life Sciences, the Web Science Trust and Doctoral training Centre, the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, the Southampton Statistical Sciences Research Institute and is a partner of the National Oceanography Centre at the Southampton waterfront campus.

4. The University of Dundee is one of Scotland's leading institutions and one of the world's top 250 universities. Dundee is internationally recognised for the quality of its teaching and research, spread across four Colleges - Arts & Social Sciences; Art, Science & Engineering; Life Sciences; and Medicine, Dentistry and Nursing.

The University is a major employer in the east of Scotland and a hub for investment in biotechnology and the creative industries. Dundee was voted best in the UK for student experience in the 2012 Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey. See http://www.dundee.ac.uk for further details.

The University's School of the Environment comprises Town & Regional Planning, Architecture, Geography and Environmental Science.

By bringing together distinct but related subjects, it has been possible to enhance inter-disciplinary research, and research-led teaching and create innovative degree programmes aimed at finding solutions to the social and environmental issues underpinning many of the world's most pressing problems.

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