13 Mar 2023
It is one of most pristine and protected places in the world, but new research has revealed the alarming extent of plastic pollution in the Galápagos archipelago and the harm it poses to its rare and endangered animals.
“The Galápagos is considered to be one of the most untouched natural wonders of the world and yet rubbish is washing up on every one of its 13 major islands, including those that are isolated and uninhabited."
Juan Pablo Muñoz-Pérez
Global solutions needed for plastic oceans crisis
UniSC Associate Professor Kathy Townsend, who leads global research into marine pollution, said the study demonstrated that the Galápagos Marine Reserve was no exception to the global plastic pollution crisis.
“Each year, millions of tonnes of rubbish enter the world’s oceans with the impacts now threatening the endemic wildlife of the Galápagos archipelago, species that are of critical global importance,” she said.
“As part of this study, we generated a threat assessment based on the dangers and potential risks posed by plastic debris exposure, allowing us to identify and rank the most at-risk species.”
Green sea turtles, marine iguanas, whale sharks, medium-ground finches, Galápagos flightless cormorant and spine-tail mobula fish were found to be facing the greatest threat of serious harm from entanglement.
When it comes to ingesting plastics, the Santa Cruz tortoise, green sea turtle and Galápagos marine iguana – the world’s only marine lizard, are most in danger.
Dr Townsend said that now the extent of the problem had been established, the next step involved conducting general health tests on key species and measuring the levels of plastics-related toxics in their blood and tissues.
“Plastics are everywhere. In the air, in our food, in the water, in our blood. The health impact of plastic pollution is the next big question to answer."
The Galápagos Islands have a relatively small human population, strict immigration laws, and a unique system of nature protection.
“As a result, the archipelago provides the opportunity to serve as a 'social and natural laboratory' to generate data for solving the complex global socio-ecological issue of plastic pollution,” Dr Townsend said.
“Our research indicates that plastic pollution is an ongoing, pervasive risk to the Galápagos archipelago and that additional work is necessary to mitigate its impact now and into the future.
“This it is not restricted to this region. Global solutions must be implemented to alleviate this international crisis.
“It very difficult to live plastic-free nowadays. However, we can all definitely try to live with less single-use plastics. Seven billion people trying is going to make a difference.”
The study is one of many research projects that UniSC is involved with as a member of the International Galapagos Science Consortium, a group of institutions dedicated to studying and preserving the archipelago through collaborative, interdisciplinary research.