Guarding the fragile reefs in Galapagos

U. SOUTHAMPTON (UK)—Results from a three-year research project in the Galapagos Islands could help protect some of the world’s rarest and most vulnerable coral reefs—and the economies that depend on them.

The effort included the most comprehensive study using innovative mapping and rapid assessment techniques undertaken to date in the remote northern Galapagos Islands, with input from a large number of international and local marine and coral scientists to inventory existing coral species and distribute information via a field guide.

The research team evaluated reef community composition, including the possible description of new species; conducted a series of underwater surveys; and deployed permanent fishing- and dive-boat mooring sites to prevent anchor damage in the reef areas under the greatest stress.

In the process, researchers discovered new species both to science and to Galapagos, including zooanthid species from the genera Hydrozoanthus, Parazoanthus, Antipathozoanthus, and possibly Epizoanthus.

“These significant findings greatly improve our knowledge and appreciation of the value and current condition of the Galapagos’s northerly coral communities and establishes conservation measures and stakeholder commitments to protect these valuable habitats,” says Terry Dawson, who led the project and is a geography professor at the University of Southampton.

“This step forward demonstrates how relatively modest external aid can empower applied marine research and lead to management policy. Such steps are critical if natural ecosystem function is to be conserved to maintain Galapagos’s intrinsic value and contribution to the wellbeing of future generations.”

The project ran from June 2005 to June 2008, and the research was published in a special edition of the journal Galapagos Research.

The Galapagos Islands lie in the Pacific Ocean about 1,000 km from the South American coast and straddling the Equator. Galapagos is a province of Ecuador, and has been recognized internationally as a Man and Biosphere Reserve and as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The northern islands of Wolf and Darwin form a distinct and isolated biogeographic zone in Galapagos that supports a high level of biodiversity, including priority conservation endemic corals and associated species, subject to extreme natural climatic and anthropogenic pressures.

A unique assemblage of tropical fish species and large pelagics, which are associated with the limited hermatypic coral structures and offshore environment, account for 66 percent of the indo-pacific and panamic species richness in the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR).

The extreme climatic fluctuations under El Niño events in the region are particularly damaging for coral populations—extensive coral reefs were reduced by 97 percent in 1982-83 and further compounded to 99 percent losses in 1997-98.

Subsequent surveys show that Wolf and Darwin harbor more than 95 percent of the coral species now remaining in the GMR including rare corals that may well become globally extinct and demand special attention.

In addition to achieving its primary aims, the project also engaged the fishing and tourism industries for improved management of the marine environment.

Researchers from the Charles Darwin Research Station, Conservation International, Galapagos National Park Service, and WildAid contributed to the project.

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