Published: Saturday 15 July 1995

-- The international commercial fishing industry is posing a serious threat to Ecuador's Galapagos Islands, an invaluable living laboratory of evolution 650 miles west of the mainland. A growing demand for sea cucumbers in Asia and parts of western Europe has led to an influx of non-native fishing companies into the Islands.

Though a government ban on exploitation of the sea cucumber exists on paper, the boneless cucumber-shaped marine invertebrates are being caught each week from the waters surrounding the archipelago, where many of the Islands' species feed. The protein-rich sea cucumber is a prized ingredient in some Chinese and French dishes and is regarded as an aphrodisiac and cure for high blood pressure in Asia.

"The sea cucumber problem is a symptom of a larger problem," says Miguel Pellerano, who directs World Wide Fund for Nature's Hispanic South America programme. "The Galapagos Islands are a unit -- land and sea. If you allow the overexploitation of any one area or species, you're opening the door to disaster. Soon the Islands' delicate web of life could hang in tatters."

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