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14/05/2024 Plastic pollution Women in science

Researching plastic and chemical pollution in Galapagos

Georgie Savage, PhD student at the University of Exeter, introduces us to her work on plastic pollution and shares stories from her recent research trip with GCT to Galapagos.

Hannah Rickets

Communications and Marketing Officer

Can you give a brief overview of what your PhD is focused on?

As an island province, Galapagos is at the forefront of the Anthropocene, facing cumulative pressures from population growth, rapid urbanisation, unsustainable tourism and increasing shipping, fishing and agricultural activities. Subsequently, we are witnessing increasing documentation of chemical contaminants within the Galapagos Marine Reserve, including oil, plastics, pesticides, persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals.

Thus, my PhD focuses on characterising coastal chemical contamination and identifying tools (i.e. passive samplers, biosensors, portable devices and bioassays) that can be applied to rapidly assess pollution to aid monitoring and management capabilities of the Galapagos National Park.

Lava lizard and plastic pollution in Galapagos
Lava lizard and plastic pollution in Galapagos © Conservation International / GNPD
Flightless cormorant nest contaminated with plastics

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What are some of the most common ways pollutants accumulate in ecosystems, and what can we do to mitigate this issue?

Approximately 220 billion tonnes of chemicals are released into the environment each year from industries such as mining, agriculture, maritime, construction and energy production. Sources of chemical pollution in marine environments include factory emissions, wastewater treatment facilities, surface run-off from agricultural land and urban areas, as well as maritime activities such as shipping and fishing.

Once in marine ecosystems, chemical pollutants can accumulate in the different environmental matrices, such as seafloor sediment, seawater, or wildlife. Some of the ways in which we can mitigate the introduction of chemicals into the marine environment are by reducing chemical usage, improving waste management infrastructure, decreasing fossil fuel consumption, and strengthening policy and governance and pollutant sales, usage and disposal.

Pollution in Galapagos
Pollution in Galapagos © Dan Wright
Jen Jones investigating the impacts of microplastics on the Galapagos marine foodweb

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What drew you to conduct your research in Galapagos?

Before I started my PhD, I worked as a research assistant as part of a large, international network known as Pacific Plastic: Science to Solutions. This project aims to investigate the sources, impacts and solutions for plastic pollution in the Eastern Pacific region. Through this work, I was fortunate enough to first visit Galapagos for the first time.

However, seeing that beautiful landscape and unique biodiversity alongside large quantities of plastic pollution was heartbreaking. But then I got to meet more of the incredible people working to protect Galapagos, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it and to help in any way I could.

Dolphin leaping from the water in front of Darwin's Arch, Galapagos
The Galapagos Islands © Rolex / Franck Gazzola
GCT and PPSS team in front of the Greenpeace art installation in Paris

Pacific Plastic: Science to Solutions

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What have you been working on during your trip to Galapagos in March? Any highlights of the trip?

During this past trip to Galapagos, I worked as a ‘scientific consultant’ for GCT as part of my PhD placement. The first week of the trip involved helping to deliver a training workshop to National Park rangers on the potential of drones to assess plastic pollution while further developing survey methods to assist their plastic monitoring programme.

Week two was focused on co-developing a Galapagos Plastic Management Plan for 2030. I then accompanied the Coastal Cleanup team into the field for the final week to apply the different monitoring strategies and experience firsthand the extreme conditions (i.e. weather, sea state and terrain) the team faced in their battle to rid the Galapagos of plastic pollution.

Throughout this trip, I enjoyed experiencing and being a part of the important work GCT does on the ground to translate and communicate the science to management officials and policymakers to create an impact. I got to work with many incredible people from the Galapagos National Park, Conservation International and local citizen science programmes, whose passion and determination to conserve the Galapagos is truly humbling.

Georgie collecting samples © Georgie Savage
GCT drone workshop with the GNPD coastal clean-up team

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What’s one piece of advice you would give to someone just starting out their career in conservation?

Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for opportunities! Getting into conservation, whether that be in a scientific or NGO capacity, can be challenging. The more experience you have under your belt, the more competitive you will be. This doesn’t have to be a paid trip to Greece to protect the turtles; instead, why not get involved in a local citizen science programme, sign up for an online science communication course, participate in a beach clean or volunteer for a charity like GCT? Be inquisitive, ask questions and don’t be afraid to let your passion for conservation shine through!

Georgina Savage and Cristian Peñafiel in the field © Kevin Gepford
Tortoise outreach activities

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What is your favourite Galapagos species and why?

That’s an impossible question; there are so many incredible Galapagos species! However, I do love the blue-footed boobies! I got to witness them doing their mating dance – they slowly peel each of their blue feet off the ground and lift it into the air, like a slow-motion jog on the spot – and it’s the funniest thing to watch!

The scalloped hammerheads are pretty special as well; being able to harmoniously share the water with them in Galapagos is incredible! This past trip in March, I was lucky enough to see orcas (or killer whales) just off Santa Cruz, which was a bucket list experience for me! There was a family of four, with a little baby, hunting a turtle and slamming down their tails – it was probably my favourite marine animal encounter ever; there were definitely some happy tears.

Blue-footed booby courtship dance
Blue-footed booby courtship dance © Louise Cardy

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Help the wildlife of Galapagos survive and thrive

There are many ways to support our vision for a sustainable Galapagos: why not adopt an animal, become a GCT member or donate today?

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