August 6, 2014
It is an invasive species that is one of the most pressing threats to ocean ecosystems in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. And my wife was wearing one on her ear.
My wife had just bought these beautiful earrings, made from the spines of the venomous red lionfish (Pterois volitans), from a studio in Rincon, Puerto Rico. Later that trip, we shared delicious empanadas con pez leon. The jewelry and the food share a common thread—using markets as a tool to control the raging lionfish invasion that is wreaking havoc on Caribbean and Gulf coral reef ecosystems.
Red lionfish are native to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, where they share the reefs with and are kept in check by other species that co-evolved with them over millions of years. But the story in the Atlantic is very different. DNA evidence indicates that the Atlantic lionfish invasion began with a small number of female lionfish that escaped or were intentionally released from captivity and first observed in the Atlantic in 1985. Lionfish are voracious carnivores capable of consuming half their weight in a single feeding, and they are highly fecund, producing 30,000 eggs every four days in warmer climates. As a result, the initial escape of a handful of individuals proved the vanguard of a much bigger problem.
Today, red lionfish and their cousins, common lionfish (Pterois miles) are widespread across the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico—in some places they reach concentrations of up to 1000 lionfish per acre. These lionfish are causing substantial economic and environmental harm, as well as harm to human health. They get into lobster traps, where they reduce catch and can sting fishermen; they compete with other economically-important fish (such as snapper); and they deplete herbivorous fish that keep algae in check, undermining reefs’ ability to respond to stressors like climate change and ocean acidification as well as affecting tourism.
While we can’t get rid of lionfish entirely, scientists, lawyers, fishermen, community members, and others are all working to limit its harm—and my wife’s earrings are part of the story.
1. Prevent the introduction of other lionfish and scorpionfish!
So far, 2 species of lionfish are established in the Atlantic, but at least another 10 species are commonly in trade in the United States (see pp. 11-12) and could be introduced at some point in the future—and there are hundreds of other scorpionfish species, every one of which is venomous and few of which are native to the Atlantic. For example, stonefish (Synanceia spp.) are the world’s most venomous fish, and their stings cause intense pain—a fact that many Indo-Pacific swimmers and even researchers have learned to their lasting regret—but they can be and are purchased in the aquarium trade.
Despite their potential to harm the economy, environment, and human health, neither the species that are already here nor any other related species are on the list of “injurious wildlife” maintained by the Fish and Wildlife Service. As a result, importation and trade in these species continues unabated, and it’s only a matter of time until the next species is introduced to our waters. New injurious wildlife listings take years, so it’s important to get the process started now, before it’s too late. Congress can help, too—just two weeks ago, the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife held a hearing on a bill that would reform the injurious wildlife listing process—a long overdue step. And the House Natural Resources Committee may take up the lionfish issue soon.
States are getting in on the prevention action. Florida previously outlawed importation of red and common lionfish, but just last week expanded its protections to cover all Pterois species—a step forward, even though there’s a long way to go before the full range of potentially invasive scorpionfish are adequately regulated. If other states follow suit, the risk of future invasions can be substantially reduced—even if the federal government doesn’t take action.
To learn more about injurious wildlife, watch our recent webinar:
2. Implement Strategic Management Laws and Policies
Prevention is the most important and cost-effective strategy for managing invasions, but we can also take concrete steps to manage the fish that are already here. In the United States, the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force will soon act to adopt a national lionfish management plan—a critical step that will help us identify priority areas and habitats in need of special protection, what strategies we use to knock back the population, and how we may need to adapt our laws to manage the problem. Control efforts will require all stakeholders to work together.
Derbies represent one key strategy for engaging the fishing community in lionfish control. Last month, local fishermen in Barbuda competed for $2,500 in prizes for the largest lionfish catch—and along the way, they learned how to safely handle lionfish. Check out our work with the Barbuda Blue Halo Initiative.
Market measures are also promising—lionfish are tasty and can be used to make beautiful goods. In Texas, lionfish meat can sell for up to $18 per pound. Governments can participate in these new markets by providing financial and technical support for fishermen, distributors, and consumers, by purchasing lionfish directly, and—most importantly—by ensuring that regulations do not unnecessarily restrict harvest of invasive species. Florida has taken the lead here as well—in the rule issued last week, the state authorized spearfishing for lionfish in certain instances and began the process of ensuring that open season on lionfish continues year-round.
Lionfish are an integral part of ecosystems in the Indo-Pacific. But they are a destructive force outside of their native habitat. The threat facing Atlantic, Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and even South American reefs is severe, but there is still hope. If we can move enough lionfish off our reefs and onto our plates and ears, we can limit the destruction—and if we can learn a lesson from lionfish, we can protect the ocean by stopping the next invader before it arrives.
Understanding the Great Unknowns and Preventing Permanent Harm to the Deep Ocean
May 16, 2014
Also, today, the International Seabed Authority closes its “stakeholder survey,” soliciting information about how to design a regulatory framework for deep seabed mineral exploitation. Driven by expanding interest in exploiting the deep ocean, the Seabed Authority is designing the legal framework that may determine the long-term health of the largest living space on Earth. Nations too are taking steps to lease their seabeds for mining activities. In light of these important legal developments, it is worth pausing to consider the special nature of the deep ocean and how to best manage it.
Scientists consider waters and seabed below 200 meters in depth as part of the deep ocean. It is a place of extremes—extreme size, extreme depth, extreme pressure, extreme darkness, and extreme unknowns. Yet human understanding of deep ocean ecosystems is considerably limited in comparison to the rest of Earth’s ecosystems. No doubt this lack of understanding is a result of the high cost, technology requirements, and dangers of working at depth.
While knowledge of the deep may be limited, human impact is ongoing. From intentional dumping, accidental spills, and land-based runoff, the deep sea bed and water column have been and are being polluted with anthropogenic waste. At the same time, human exploitation is moving deeper. Fishing vessels scour the deep with trawls. Oil and gas companies drill a mile below the sea. Mining companies explore the potential to extract manganese nodules across nation-sized swaths of the abyssal plains. Even the effects of climate change are already visible in the deep ocean.
As with all natural systems, the deep ocean ignores jurisdictional boundaries. The deep ocean is found in territorial seas, exclusive economic zones, continental shelves, and areas beyond national jurisdiction. In most instances, frameworks for managing deep ocean activities include general environmental laws or ocean laws, but few laws focus specifically on human activities in the deep ocean. Yet deep ocean environments share a suite of characteristics that make them special when considering how best to manage human impact to these regions.
Attributes of the deep ocean—from physical characteristics, to ecosystems, to research and monitoring—should inform management decisions. In particular, the overwhelming lack of information and high cost of research and monitoring are key attributes that should inform deep ocean management. These, combined with the recognition that many deep ocean ecosystems are slow to grow and once lost may never recover, should guide the development of key principles for deep ocean management.
In particular, I suggest two guiding principles for deep ocean management:
(1) The extreme limits of human knowledge of the deep ocean require minimization of human impact in order to avoid significant and permanent harm.
(2) Lack of knowledge of the deep ocean calls for mechanisms to expand deep ocean research in order to enable sound decision-making and expansion of appropriate utilization of the deep ocean.
With development of regulations for deep seabed mining underway in national and international waters, now is the time to take action to ensure that these new uses are developed in a way to protect and maintain the long-term health of the common heritage of mankind and the water column above it. We must take steps to understand the great unknowns and prevent permanent harm to the deep ocean.
–Kathryn Mengerink, firstname.lastname@example.org
Co-Director, Ocean Program
Deepwater Horizon: Four Years Later
April 20, 2014
Four years ago today, on April 20, 2010, an explosion rocked the Deepwater Horizon mobile offshore drilling unit. Eleven crewmen lost their lives in the blast, and the rig burned for the next thirty-six hours. Then, 41 miles off the southeast coast of Louisiana, the Deepwater Horizon sank. At the wellhead, nearly a mile underwater in the Gulf of Mexico, the environmental disaster was just beginning. Oil gushed for the next three months, during which millions of barrels of oil mixed with millions of gallons of dispersant to contaminate more than 1,000 miles of coast.
New pictures released in Daniel Beltrá’s book “SPILL” show some of the acute impacts on the Gulf in the month after the April 2010 explosion. The pictures are evocative, often resembling haunting impressionist paintings.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred nearly four years ago, and the recovery and restoration processes in the Gulf of Mexico region are ongoing. The environmental, social, and economic impacts on the region are massive and enduring. But across the country and the world, the disaster and its aftermath have largely receded from current attention.
Although huge swaths of oil no longer coat the Gulf of Mexico and beaches of the Gulf coast, oil still is present four years later in some areas, and the long-term effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill will continue to be felt for years and decades to come. The Environmental Law Institute (ELI), through our publications, workshops, and social media outreach (Facebook, Twitter), aims to shine a spotlight on the ongoing impacts and the efforts to restore injuries and recover from harm. This blog will be another tool to stay abreast of Gulf issues. Among other things, we will highlight legal developments, economic and industry news related to the restoration process, and other relevant storylines.
Most of all, we aim to never forget the human story, and the environmental and economic realities faced by the people and communities that comprise the Gulf Coast.
Public Interest Law Fellow
Welcome to Ocean Talk
April 20, 2014
In 2006, we launched the Ocean Program at the Environmental Law Institute to tackle pressing ocean and coastal governance challenges. Through discussions and brainstorming sessions the team explored potential target topics, from addressing climate change impacts to exploring ecosystem-based management implementation, and even the contentious (and critically important) issue of whether we would be the plural “Oceans Program” or the singular “Ocean Program.” With a small team of fantastic attorneys and research associates, we quickly moved beyond brainstorming and initiated research in several key areas, keeping our primary focus of making law work for people, places, and the planet.
Eight years later, the initiatives we began in 2006 continue to inform our efforts and serve as a starting point for new directions. In Alaska, we support the role of Alaska Natives in managing resources, In the Gulf of Mexico, we partner to train communities about the legal framework related to post-Deepwater Horizon restoration. In the Mid-Atlantic, we help state and federal decision-makers examine and strengthen legal frameworks for renewable energy development and marine spatial planning. Our research, analysis and training has taken us to places like Israel, to host a study session on ecosystem-based management for the offshore environment and Barbuda, to support local efforts to achieve sustainable fisheries with ocean zoning and improved regulations. The list goes on with our fabulous and growing team of law and policy experts.
We are fortunate to work on a diverse array of issues and be exposed to an incredible web of leaders, experts, and individuals while we do it. Through our Program we are continually inspired to tackle new issues and expand our reach to support healthy oceans and communities.
Today we begin a blog, Ocean Talk, as a tool to share salient issues, perspectives, and resources. We hope the entries will spur ideas and expand the ocean dialogue—and we’re always around to join.
Thanks for following. Ocean Talk is a product of the Environmental Law Institute Ocean Program.
We welcome thoughts, comments, and ideas for blog posts at email@example.com.