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Giant Tortoises Caught in Fishing Dispute

A DESK-SIZED tortoise known as Lonesome George is caught in a dispute over sea cucumbers in the Galapagos Islands. Fishermen angry over an Ecuadoran government's ban on sea-cucumber fishing are threatening to harm the well-known tortoise in retaliation.

Earlier this month, masked fishermen blocked a road, sank a vessel, and took over national-park facilities for a short time, according to Johannah Barry, a spokeswoman for the Charles Darwin Foundation, which has a research facility on the islands.

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Threats against the tortoise and other park animals were not carried out, Ms. Barry says. But officials of the foundation and of World Wildlife Fund say they are concerned about the dispute's impact on the fragile islands.

Lonesome George, believed to be more than 100 years old, is thought to be the last of the Pinta Island variety of tortoises. About 10,000 giant tortoises, unique to the Galapagos, live on the islands.

Fishermen and government officials met in Quito, Ecuador, last week to discuss the dispute, and the government is studying whether to reopen fishing of sea cucumbers. An experimental harvest was cut off last month after wildlife groups said up to 10 million sea cucumbers had been taken in a catch that was supposed to be limited to 550,000.

Sea cucumbers, sausage-shaped creatures rich in protein, are a delicacy in Asian countries.

An official of the Ecuadoran Embassy in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, says sea cucumbers, shark fins, and lobsters from the Galapagos waters bring high prices around the world.

He describes the 400 Galapagos fishermen as ``very humble people'' and says the government faces a tough dilemma.

``On the one hand, you have to preserve the ecology of the islands. On the other hand, these people need to make a living. You have to find a balance,'' he says.

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