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Guest Writer

Galápagos Journal (Part Four)
The sea cucumber has two sides
by Dan Buettner

Writer, adventurer and three-time Guinness World Record holder Dan Buettner recently spent some time studying the ecologically challenged Galápagos Islands. Here, from his journal, are some ongoing impressions.

t's been a tough 24 hours for the Galápagos Quest team.

In just one day, Jim fell off the trail while scaling a volcano cone and gashed open his arm, Judy got heat stroke and spent the afternoon puking her guts out. Right now, we're experiencing heavy winds and high seas. Our ship is rocking back and forth like a paint mixer.

It's impossible to concentrate and this report is due in 48 minutes. Moreover, it's going to be virtually impossible to hold the satellite dish steady enough to hit the satellite in these high seas. If you're reading this, it's a small miracle.

We came here to Isabela to explore one of the biggest environmental controversies in the Galápagos. It all centers on one of the most disgusting-looking creatures you can imagine – the sea cucumber.

In one corner you have the environmentalists claiming that sea cucumbers are being fished to extinction. In the other corner fishermen from Isabela say that they depend on the sea cucumber to make a living. At the Charles Darwin Research Station, we got the environmentalist side of the story. I figured it was only fair that we gave the fishermen in Isabela a chance to tell their side.

Let's take a closer look at the sea cucumber that's at the center of this controversy. Picture the grossest, slimiest leech you've ever seen, add some warts and increase its size 100 times and you've got a sea cucumber.

As ugly as it is, the sea cucumber works hard to keep the ocean bottom clean, munching on little bits of dead plants, animal parts and feces.

They've been called the earthworms of the sea because they filter sediments through their bodies, chuck out the bad stuff and recycle the good.

Scientists say that without them, sea life around the Galápagos would change forever. They also blame the fishermen – especially those from Isabela Island – for fishing them into oblivion.

We approached Isabela, the biggest island in the Galápagos, from the south. There, nestled between Sierra Negra volcano and the turquoise green waters of the Pacific, was the village of Villamil. It looks like a storybook paradise.

Just a block away from the dock I found Carlos Mocayo, second in charge at the fishermen's cooperative. A small, wiry man, he wore flip-flops and a weathered tank top. He greeted me from his tiny desk, put down his pen and said, "How can I serve you?"

I explained that I was leading an interactive expedition and that our online collaborators had sent us to find out about sea cucumbers.

"People are bad-mouthing fishermen here," I told him frankly. "They say that you don't care about the environment."

Carlos sighed.

"You've been talking to people who put more value on a tortoise's life than a human's life," he replied. "The people here are simple fishermen. Come, let me show you."

He took me to a small harbor on the edge of town where a couple dozen small boats were anchored. Several men and young boys were catching bait fish, getting ready for their next fishing trip.

"These people, my relatives and neighbors, are fishermen and have been for years," Carlos said. "They don't have much education and no other way to make a living. We want to give our kids a better life than we had. Is that a crime?"

As I looked at the faces of the kids working hard with their dads I had to sympathize.

"We all want the best for our kids," I agreed, "but if you wipe out the sea cucumbers then your children will have nothing left to fish."

He smiled.

"We know that better than anyone," he said. "We're not stupid. We know that if we take everything now, there'll be nothing left for next year, nothing for our children. But if we leave them there, no one benefits."

After chatting for a while longer Carlos told me to come back tomorrow. I told him I'd be there and wandered off, scratching my head. A few days ago I thought the issues were so clear.

Dan Buettner (Visit his Web site.)

We have our books and our notes full of facts and studies saying how endangered the sea cucumber is. Now I have this fisherman telling me a whole different story.

I still don't know how I feel. Maybe I'll find out tomorrow. Carlos promised to actually take me out fishing.

Then again, he also promised to treat me to a bowl of sea cucumber stew.

E-mail Dan, visit his Quest Network Web site and find more of his journal in our archives.

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