The Ecuadorian Coast Detailed
“Save the trees, save the bees, save the whales, save those snails” – George Carlin (American actor).
Vasula melones is a small species of marine whelk (carnivorous snail) that resides along the coasts of México, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, and the Galápagos Islands.1 It can be found in and around the intertidal zone of these regions, where the waves crash along the beach and form tide pools. These snails are known for the small swirl pattern found on their shells as well as their purple pigmentation. Typically, they feed on smaller organisms around the intertidal zone and use their strong, muscular foot to hide themselves among the rocks. Why am I talking so much about these snails you might ask? Stay tuned. They end up being pretty important.
During the third week of my stay in Ecuador, my classmates and I embarked on our very first excursion of the program—a week-long field trip spent along the Pacific Ocean conducting fieldwork on the intertidal zone. To get there, we had to get up at 5:00 a.m. and take a 12-hour-long bus ride out to the Manabí Province, a coastal area in central Ecuador near the city of Guayaquil. I’m not going to lie; I was nervous. I’m a Spanish major, not a STEM girl. I hadn’t taken a biology course in years, and I had no idea how to conduct research in the field. I wasn’t sure what was in store for me, and I definitely wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to hold my own surrounded by a group of future marine scientists.
When we finally arrived at the first hotel, weary and hungry, our professor broke down the schedule for the week. Apparently, we would be splitting up into two groups to conduct our research, and heading out to different areas. Some of us would be working with transects and quadrats, while others would simply be collecting organisms while combing the tide pools and taking their measurements. Fortunately, I was a part of the latter group: collecting. That seemed simple enough.
On the first day out in the field, after a tedious walk to the collection site, our professor sent us off with a small bucket and instructions to amass as many whelks as possible in a 40-minute period. I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing (or if I was even collecting the right type of snail), but, somehow, I managed to gather a small amount in the time frame and bring them over for measurements. Then, after noting each of their respective lengths and weights, we released them back into the tide pools.
Over the next three days, we repeated these same tasks though in different areas. Sometimes, we walked along beaches that were closer to human settlements. Other times, they were more remote. I was still unclear as to what we were going to do with the information, but I decided to just roll with the punches. Either way, I could now state that I had successfully completed scientific fieldwork and data collection. The following Monday, we found ourselves back in our usual classroom in Quito. Everything was the same as before except we were each now significantly tanner, and we also had a whole new set of data. At 10:00, our professor walked in, ready to start the new week. She told us that we would be using the measurements we had collected to design and formulate our very own research project. We were to work in groups, and we could choose any topic that interested us just so long as it followed the scientific method. When she finished explaining, we broke up into our groups to discuss. My team decided that we wanted to study anthropogenic impact on Ecuadorian whelks. More specifically, we wanted to know if human proximity had any effect on the size and abundance of the species V. melones (I told you they would come up again).
After spending many hours parsing over our data and running statistical tests, we did eventually come to the conclusion that there was a correlation between anthropogenic settlements and the size of the V. melones. Basically, in areas where there were larger congregations of people, the whelks were, on average, smaller than those found along the more remote beaches. Unfortunately, we couldn’t determine the reasoning behind this pattern. However, we could definitively say that V. melones in heavily populated areas were not growing up to be as large as their neighbors.
Though our project had drawn to a close, our edification on the subject was just beginning. In a class lecture, our professor explained that, in recent years, many fishing communities along the coast have begun to impact the biodiversity of the marine animals living near them. Fishermen practice unsustainable fishing habits, catching anything that can be sold at markets from sharks to octopuses. Seafood brings in business, and business means a sufficient income for those involved and their families.
I started to get it. Men and women along the coast—people living in the areas from where we had just returned—were hunting the animals we had surveyed. They ate the V. melones whelks or sold them. Even if some didn’t, they were still fundamentally altering their ecosystems, sometimes enough to change the phenotypic appearances of the species themselves. This was their sustainability issue. While the larger metropolitan areas like Quito struggled with carbon emissions, the Manabí Province was combatting overfishing and ecosystem destruction. To reiterate this point, our professor took us to a local fish market while on the coast. I was kind of curious. Because I’m a vegetarian, I had never been to a market like this before, and I wanted to see what it was like. Once inside, I lasted a total of five minutes. I took one look at the rows of dead marine organisms—fish, sharks, octopuses—and was hit with a wave of nausea. Sick to my stomach, I had to go wait out on the bus for the rest of the class to finish their tour.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of empirical evidence to back up this theory of overfishing in Ecuador. According to a study conducted by the World Wildlife Federation back in 2020, approximately 94% of all fish populations in Ecuador are exploited.2 Although gathering such large quantities of fish may be beneficial to locals in the short term, in the long run, this practice is clearly unsustainable. Luckily, there are a number of passionate individuals who are fighting to spread awareness about this issue, unwilling to give up on these marine species. Some are in academia, like my professor, who are researching these trends and publishing studies to reinforce their data. Others are just in their local communities, taking small actions to protect surrounding wildlife.
Though seeing the fish market was a painful experience, I’m glad to have gone. I feel like one of the main issues with sustainability and conservation is that people recognize there is a problem, but they don’t always see how it directly affects them or their families. Seeing these marine animals piled up firsthand reminded me of our universal connection to the ocean, forcing me to consider the role that I play in this fight despite being a vegetarian. Because, at the end of the day, the ocean affects us all. We need it to survive and to have a healthy earth. And for it to help us, it needs its inhabitants.