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 rescue effort, and a U.S. Coast Guard strike force is helping with the cleanup.
Ecuador treasures the Galapagos, an ecotourist destination as well as a renowned nature sanctuary 600 miles west of the Ecuadorean coast. British naturalist Charles Darwin developed his theories of evolution after studying the flora and fauna of the islands in the 1830s.
Despite the archipelago's beloved status, 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 islands seem a world away. Ecuador has experienced debilitating economic chaos and changed presidents five times in as many 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 the Nature Foundation, an Ecuadorean environmental defense group that works with the World Wide Fund for Nature. "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. "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 by oil that has washed ashore on the islands of San Cristobal, Santa Fe and Lobos. Dead fish have washed ashore near the spot where the 40-year-old Ecuadorean-registered 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 stricken vessel. 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 tanker level and prevent further spills, according to Cruz, who spoke from his headquarters on the island of San Cristobal.
Although only about 15,000 gallons of oil remained aboard, the precarious position of the tanker impeded the removal process. A new leak occurred Tuesday, Cruz said in a telephone interview. Associated Press reported late Tuesday that the remaining fuel had spilled after heavy surf caused new breaks in the tanker's hull.
The spill, which covers a 120-square-mile area, began Friday night after the tanker ran aground on rocks as it headed to San Cristobal bearing fuel for a private tour operator and islanders' needs. The captain of the ship was navigating in the shallow waters without a map and didn't know the area, according to Ecuador's Environmental Ministry.
In recent months, the islands have experienced a conflict pitting environmentalists and tourism businesses against fishing boat operators. The government had struggled to contain the sometimes violent clashes and prevent violations of environmental laws by fishermen.
The spill has renewed calls for the imposition of restrictions on sea routes around the islands. Environmentalists want rules that would force ships to stay farther away from the wildlife reserves.
"This is a public scandal," Cruz said. "Now the guilty are being searched for, we are asking why it is permitted to sail and transport fuel in the proximity of the Galapagos Islands."
On Tuesday, Ecuadorean Environmental Minister Rodolfo Rendon appealed to the international community for all the help it can give. Britain quickly announced that it will provide $74,000 to help with the cleanup.
"We have a very, very grave environmental problem," Rendon said. "But it's a problem, not a tragedy."
Paula Gobbi of The Times' Rio de Janeiro Bureau contributed to this report.