LIMA, Peru -- As cleanup teams worked Tuesday to contain an oil spill threatening rare wildlife in Ecuador's Galapagos Islands, the Ecuadorean government said that favorable ocean currents have spared one of the world's most significant and sensitive ecosystems from an ecological disaster.
Wind and ocean currents have partially dissipated the 160,000-gallon spill from a disabled tanker and pushed it out into the Pacific Ocean, away from the islands that are home to giant tortoises, sea lions, rare birds and hundreds of other protected species, the Ecuadorean president's office said Tuesday evening.
"According to evaluation by the Galapagos National Park, no critical damage exists because the effects have been dispersed," the government statement said, citing Diego Bonilla, the park's assistant director. "Any impact on the ecosystem is recoverable in the short, medium and long term."
Nonetheless, government environmental officials have created two rescue centers to tend to affected wildlife, which included 12 sea lions and eight pelicans, according to the president's office. Experts from the United States and Canada will aid in the animal recovery effort, and a U.S. Coast Guard strike force is helping in the cleanup.
The Ecuadorean government treasures the Galapagos Islands, an ecotourism destination as well as a renowned nature sanctuary 600 miles west of Ecuador. Charles Darwin, the British naturalist, developed his theories of evolution in the 1830s after studying the flora and fauna of the islands.
Despite its beloved status, however, the Ecuadorean government's response to the accident was slowed by the limited resources of an impoverished nation of 12 million people whose political and economic crises make the exotic archipelago seem a world away. Ecuador has experienced debilitating economic chaos and changed presidents five times in the past five years.
Because the islands have never experienced an incident of this magnitude, the full impact on an ecosystem prized for its centuries-old isolation and purity will be difficult to evaluate, experts said. Even if the damage isn't great, the spill has served as a warning, they said.
"This is the first large oil spill in the islands, and they are not prepared for it," said Ricardo Moreno, executive director of Nature Foundation, an Ecuadorean environmental defense group that works with the World Wildlife Fund. "The government of Ecuador has to be active and show the world when things like this happen. In this case they have been slow in reacting."
Despite the encouraging news about favorable currents, Ecuadorean officials warned Tuesday that oil continued to seep from the grounded tanker. "Most of the coast has not been affected, and the current is breaking up the oil spill," said Eliecer Cruz, director of the national park on San Cristobal, the biggest of the islands. "For the moment, only a few animals have been affected. ... But we cannot calculate the future consequences."
Hundreds of Ecuadorean environmental officials and volunteers were tending to the sea lions and pelicans that have been affected on the islands of Santa Fe and Sea Lion west of San Cristobal. Dead fish have washed ashore near the spot where the 40-year-old oil tanker Jessica ran aground.
An 11-member team of pollution-control specialists dispatched by the U.S. Coast Guard raced to extract the remaining oil from the tanker. Using pumps and inflatable barges, the specially trained members of the Coast Guard strike force are working with Ecuadorean marines, who are trying to keep the half-submerged vessel level and prevent further spills, according to Cruz.
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