Puerto Baquerizo, Galapagos Isla As rangers worked Wednesday to net wildlife stained and dazed by an oil spill, authorities arrested the captain of the leaking tanker and pledged stronger protections for these islands renowned for their unique animals and birds.
Capt. Tarquino Arevalo and 13 crewmen from the tanker Jessica were ordered confined to a military base on San Cristobal island pending formal charges, Merchant Marines Vice Adm. Gonzalo Vega said Wednesday.
The captain and the tanker's owners could face two to four years in prison if convicted of negligence or crimes against the environment.
Ecuadorean Environment Minister Rodolfo Rendon said he was pushing to have them all jailed pending the investigation. The arrests come eight days after the Jessica ran aground off San Cristobal Island, one of the Galapagos chain.
Over the days that followed, the ship leaked at least 185,000 gallons of diesel fuel into this fragile ecosystem, one populated by species found nowhere else in the world and an inspiration for Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.
The ship ran aground after a signal buoy was mistaken for a lighthouse, said Capt. Ramiro Morejon, chief of control and marine monitoring for Galapagos National Park. He blamed human error.
Only one pelican and two seagulls are known to have died. But dozens of other birds and marine animals sea lions, seagulls, blue-footed boobies and albatrosses also have been affected, officials at the Galapagos' sprawling wildlife park said. And while scientists here say the spill could have been much worse, the long-term environmental damage to the islands 600 miles off the mainland remains unclear.
"We are trying at all costs to prevent the fuel from reaching land," said biologist Harry Reyes, who helped set up a perimeter of buoys around the spill.
One environmental worker said Wednesday that the spill was under control.
"We were very worried at first, but what has happened is not so grave," said Carlos Valle, the Galapagos coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund.
Treading carefully over fuel-slicked rocks on Wednesday, park ranger Navil Segovia approached one pelican, sluggish and stained black with diesel fuel.
He netted the bird, then carefully embraced it around its chest, its wings folded in. The pelican was loaded onto a vehicle and taken to a control center, where it was to be cleaned before being released.
About 200 volunteers, park rangers and environmental experts searched for affected wildlife along the shores of San Cristobal and Santa Fe Island, 37 miles to the west, home to large colonies of sea lions and marine iguanas.