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Wednesday January 24 11:27 PM ET
Crew of Leaky Galapagos Boat Charged

By GONZALO SOLANO, Associated Press Writer

PUERTO BAQUERIZO, Galapagos Islands (AP) - 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.

Arevalo 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.

Officials have said the Jessica ran aground after a signal buoy was mistaken for a lighthouse. They blamed human error - an allegation Arevalo admitted to in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. He said he confused two landmarks, leading to the accident.

``It's very, very hard,'' he said in the interview aired Wednesday and posted on the BBC Web site. ``I know what's happened but what can I do now?''

Arevalo said he has not slept since the accident and knows the islanders blame him. ``If they want to kill, kill me, but I need a little peace,'' he said.

Efforts to reach Arevalo for more comment were unsuccessful Wednesday.

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.

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 workers said Wednesday that the spill was under control.

``We were very worried at first, but what has happened is not so grave,'' Carlos Valle, the Galapagos coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund, told The Associated Press.

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 then loaded onto a vehicle and taken to a control center, where it will be cleaned before being released.

``It wasn't difficult to catch because it was dazed,'' Segovia said.

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. Four sea lion cubs were cleaned and released Wednesday, said park director Eliecer Cruz.

Some conservationists fear the fuel will sink to the ocean floor, destroying algae vital to the food chain and threatening marine iguanas, sharks, birds that feed off fish and other species.

Conservationists worldwide demanded that Ecuador take greater steps to protect the Galapagos. And Rendon said the country is doing so: He said new legislation is being written to require special permission and insurance for all vessels entering the Galapagos with more than 10 gallons of fuel aboard.

Shipping authorities have confirmed that the Jessica was not insured for environmental contamination, he said. International shipping rules require such insurance for vessels carrying 2,000 tons of fuel, while the Jessica had only 300 tons aboard, Galapagos park officials said.

``We are writing up the regulations to establish what fuels can enter the Galapagos, and moreover, that the minimum amount possible is used,'' Rendon said.

The 28-year-old tanker Jessica is owned by the Ecuadorean company Acotramar. It regularly transported diesel and bunker, a heavy fuel used by tour boats, from the mainland into the Galapagos, Ecuador's main tourist attraction.

It was carrying a cargo of some 234,000 gallons of fuel when it hit bottom 550 yards off San Cristobal, the easternmost island in the archipelago.

Thousands of gallons were safely removed from the tanker after it hit, but much more spilled into the water. Authorities had suspended oil recovery operations and were waiting out rough tides when the last of the ship's cargo - an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 gallons of fuel - spilled out late Tuesday, apparently after pounding surf tore new ruptures in the hull.