George Lewis / Galápagos Digital

A bronze sculpture of a Galápagos tortoise greets meeting participants at the California Academy of Sciences.

It’s been 180 years since Charles Darwin’s voyage to the Galápagos Islands and to mark the occasion, the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science has made Galápagos research a centerpiece of this year’s annual meeting in San Francisco, California.  The conference got underway Monday, June 15 with approximately 450 scientists, educators, students, and science enthusiasts from across the western United States in attendance.

The program includes a three-day symposium featuring more than 30 speakers who will discuss new research and current issues related to the Galápagos Islands. The program “casts quite a broad net,” said organizer Matt James, a professor of paleontology and geology at Sonoma State University.

George Lewis / Galápagos Digital

Peter Kramer of the Charles Darwin Foundation at the San Francisco conference

Peter Kramer, representing the Charles Darwin Foundation, spoke of the 51 years of cooperation between the foundation and the Galápagos National park.  Kramer, one of the earliest directors of the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, said that the “Galápagos National Park was “doing a fantastic job of protecting the islands.” Kramer played a pivotal role in establishing the Galápagos National Park service.

He noted that the Foundation’s contract with the park to foster conservation and scientific activity runs out next year and that “the Ecuadorian people and the Ecuadorian government will have to decide” the future of that relationship. Kramer was last-minute substitute for Swen Lorenz, who was recently replaced as the head of the Foundation.

Many of the speakers are focusing on the human impacts to the fragile ecosystems of the islands and attempts to restore the balance of nature.

Paolo Bocci of the Department of Anthropology of the University of North Carolina gave participants a summary of his PhD research on how the highlands of the inhabited Galápagos Islands has become ecologically degraded.

George Lewis / Galápagos Digital

Patricia Jaramillo, Leader of  the Galapagos Verde 2050 project.

Patricia Jaramillo Diaz spoke as Leader of the Galápagos Verde 2050 which seeks to restore native vegetation to the islands.  Currently there are 900 introduced plant species in the Galápagos, crowding out native and endemic vegetation in some places.  It’s a situation Jaramillo called a “weedy time bomb.” Galápagos Verde 2050 is a joint effort of the Darwin Foundation and the Galápagos National Park. Scientific assistance is provided by Washington Tapia, Director of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative and  James Gibbs of the Department of Forest and Environmental Biology of the State University of New York. In addition the project has numerous local volunteers who help with the arduous work of transporting and planting the indigenous plants.

Canadian author Michael Jackson of St. Michael’s University School in Victoria, B.C. presented a rundown on the burgeoning number of Galápagos tourists.  In 1980, when Jackson was a naturalist and tour guide on the islands, there were approximately 18,000 visitors annually.  Last year, the number of Galápagos visitors totaled 215,691.

He noted that at the most popular visitor sites, “Congestion has gone sky high,” forcing the Galápagos National Park to enact measures to limit the number of visitors to certain areas.

“Now itineraries are very restricted,” Jackson said.

George Lewis / Galápagos Digital

Speakers at the Galápagos seminar pose for a group photo.

Still, Jackson noted that tourist sites on the uninhabited islands have remained in near-pristine condition.  “The lack of obvious changes to the sites,” Jackson said, “is testament to the work of the park service and the guides.”

Richard Knab of the Galápagos Conservancy spoke of joint public-private efforts to improve education on the islands to develop tomorrow’s workforce of Galapagueños.  “The nature of education,” Knab said, “Is going to play a major role in the future of Galápagos.”

The Conservancy and the Galápagos-based Scalesia Foundation are working with the Ecuadorian Ministry of Education to improve instruction in the natural sciences, mathematics, English and language arts as well as environmental literacy, Knab said.  To accomplish that, the private organizations are conducting a five-year, $2.5 million fundraising effort.

Monday’s sessions concluded with a visit by conference participants to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. The Academy famously sponsored a 1905-06 expedition to Galápagos where scientists collected 78,000 samples. 

An earlier version of this article listed the American Association for the Advancement of Science as the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. Galápagos Digital regrets the error.