With Gene-Altering Schemes, Be Careful What You Wish For

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The short-tailed weasel, or stoat, decimated native bird populations after it was introduced to New Zealand. Altering the genes of invasive animals might save threatened species, scientists said, but could also have devastating consequences. Credit DeAgostini, via Getty Images

Two days ago we were intrigued by the notion; today, not so much. Is it a cat fight between two of the science writers most often linked to in these pages? Or perhaps it is an example of how scientific consensus is built:

‘Gene Drives’ Are Too Risky for Field Trials, Scientists Say

In 2013, scientists discovered a new way to precisely edit genes — technology called Crispr that raised all sorts of enticing possibilities. Scientists wondered if it might be used to fix hereditary diseases, for example, or to develop new crops.

One of the more intriguing ideas came from Kevin M. Esvelt and his colleagues at Harvard University: Crispr, they suggested, could be used to save endangered wildlife from extinction by implanting a fertility-reducing gene in invasive animals — a so-called gene drive. Continue reading

New Zealand, Invasive Species & Gene Editing

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Thanks to Ed Yong and his editors at The Atlantic for this story on one country’s approach to rats:

New Zealand’s War on Rats Could Change the World

The nation wants to eradicate all invasive mammal predators by 2050. Gene-editing technology could help—or it could trigger an ecological disaster of global proportions.

The first thing that hit me about Zealandia was the noise.

I was a 15-minute drive from the center of Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, but instead of the honks of horns or the bustle of passersby, all I could hear was birdsong. It came in every flavor—resonant coos, high-pitched cheeps, and alien notes that seemed to come from otherworldly instruments. Continue reading

Ant-Hunting Dogs

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Kyren Zimmerman and Tobias — a Labrador retriever who specializes in sniffing out the invasive Argentine ant — on Santa Cruz Island, in the Channel Islands National Park. Credit Gary Andrew/The Nature Conservancy

Ants are the masters of the planet we live on. There is no escaping that. But if these dogs can protect us from some of the more sinister ants, we have these trainers to thank:

A Very Good Dog Hunts Very Bad Ants

Tobias is a Labrador retriever with one job: sniffing out invasive Argentine ants wherever they hide. He’s really good at it, and with his help, a fragile island ecosystem may be spared a repeat inundation with the pests.

Santa Cruz Island is 25 miles off the coast of Southern California, part of Channel Islands National Park. The island’s rich, rugged environment — which includes more than 1,000 kinds of plants and animals, including the bald eagle and the island fox — is threatened by Argentine ants, one of the world’s most successful and wily invasive species. Continue reading

Being Better For Bees

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Richard Coy inspects one of his hives near Burdette, Ark. Honey production at this location fell by almost half this year — which he attributes to the drifting of weedkiller dicamba to nearby flowering plants. Dan Charles/NPR

By coincidence two days in a row we have encountered important stories related to bees–yesterday’s more inspirational and this one more troubling:

There is one small field on Michael Sullivan’s farm, near the town of Burdette, Ark., that he wishes he could hide from public view.

The field is a disaster. There are soybeans in there, but you could easily overlook them. The field has been overrun by monsters: ferocious-looking plants called pigweeds, as tall as people and bursting with seeds that will come back to haunt any crops that Sullivan tries to grow here for years to come.

“I’m embarrassed to say that we farm that field,” Sullivan says. “We sprayed it numerous times, and it didn’t kill it.”

Pigweeds, which have become resistant to some well-known herbicides, infest a soybean field in northwestern Arkansas. Dan Charles/NPR

These weeds have become resistant to Sullivan’s favorite herbicides, including glyphosate, which goes by the trade name Roundup.

Yet the rest of Sullivan’s farm is beautiful. As farmers like to say, the fields are “clean.” There is not a weed to be seen. Continue reading

Fish Provenance Matters

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Lummi Nation fishermen work to capture Atlantic salmon that escaped an aquaculture pen near Cypress Island, in Washington State. Photograph by Brandon Sawaya / SOULCRAFT ALLSTARS

With big weather news recently holding our attention, it is easy to miss smaller scale natural disasters, so thanks to E. Tammy Kim for ensuring this story made it to our pages:

Washington State’s Great Salmon Spill and the Environmental Perils of Fish Farming

Just after the thrill of the total solar eclipse, a troubling nature story emerged from northwestern Washington State. On August 22nd, Cooke Aquaculture, a multibillion-dollar seafood company, reported that, three days earlier, extreme tides coinciding with the eclipse had torn apart its enormous salmon farm off Cypress Island, a teal idyll near the college town of Bellingham. Continue reading

Collaboration in Lake Tana

People come up with different strategies to remove as many weeds as they can. One of those is to stand in line and push segments of weeds together. Maheder Haileselassie Tadese/Mongabay

This isn’t the first time the subject of water hyacinth has shown up on this site – it would be impossible to spend seven years in Kerala without coming into contact with the invasive weed.

Innovative solutions abound to harvest the fast growing plant for the labor intensive creation of consumer goods, or creative farming techniques, but in cases such as Ethiopia’s Lake Tana, communities unite to attempt manual eradication.

Community pulls water-thirsty invasive weeds from Ethiopia’s Lake Tana

Last week thousands of people in northwest Ethiopia marched to Abay River and Lake Tana as part of the “Save Lake Tana” movement to remove invasive water hyacinth by hand. The free-floating, water-thirsty perennial can grow up to three feet tall and is swallowing the northeast shores of Lake Tana, impacting both aquatic habitat health and local fishermen.

Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile and the largest lake in Ethiopia. The lake is frequently used for transport, tourism, hydroelectric power generation, ecological conservation and fishery operations. It is home to 28 fish species, out of which 16 are endemic.

A team of university researchers discovered in 2012 that 20,000 hectares of the lake’s body was covered by invasive water hyacinth (Eichhornia Crassipes). Since then, it’s gone to a peak infestation of 40,000 hectares. At first, the hyacinth was mainly found in an area with three tributaries to Lake Tana. Continue reading

New Twist in the Invasive Lionfish Saga

I’ve posted previously about the lionfish invasion that is threatening coral reef and other marine ecosystems throughout the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Southern Atlantic Seaboard of the United States.

Much has been made of the spectacular invasive success of the two species of Indo-Pacific lionfish that have established themselves throughout the Wider Caribbean.  Not only are the invaders being found at population densities more than ten times those typical in their native range, but they also have been found to grow more rapidly, reaching sexual maturity more quickly, and growing to greater size than do their Indo-Pacific cousins.

Several studies have looked at the genetic make-up of invasive lionfish and have concluded that the populations found in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, and Southeastern seaboard of the United States are all closely related, stemming back to fewer than ten females. Continue reading

Zero At The Bone, In The Everglades

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Photograph by Balarama Heller

Thanks to José Ginarte, a digital photo editor at The New Yorker, for this unusual reminder of the python invasion in the Everglades:

Chasing Pythons in the Everglades, and Finding an Eerie Dreamscape

Two and a half years ago, the photographer Balarama Heller began venturing into the Florida Everglades at night, shining his flashlight and pushing through underbrush, in the hope of photographing an invasive predator that has disrupted the local ecology: the Burmese python. Continue reading

Resolving a Politically Fraught Problem By Natural Means

Texas officials release reed-eating Arundo wasps into a thicket of the invasive weed Arundo donaxa, also called carrizo cane, in an effort to weaken or eradicate the plant.Photograph by Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty

With all the talk about building a wall along the US/Mexico border, it’s rather refreshing to read about this joint program between the U.S.D.A. and Customs and Border Protection to attempt to tear one down.

The problem is a fast growing invasive grass that sucks up water resources, crowds out native plants, and can grow as tall as a 2-story building, . The elegant solution of using stingless wasps whose larvae happily munch on the vigorous plant is elegant compared to options such as bulldozing or aerial spraying of herbicides.

Someone wandering along the banks of the Rio Grande, on the American side, in the summer of 2009 might have been startled by a small cardboard box plummeting to the ground. Neatly sealed with blue packing tape, its paper wrapping crisp and clean, the box would have felt light, even empty. But then, on further inspection, an observer would have noticed the platoon of tiny black insects exiting a slit on one end. Slightly larger than a gnat, the insects would have buzzed off, one by one, into the South Texas heat. Continue reading

When Life Gives You Lionfish…

Market-based approaches to controlling invasive lionfish populations were highlighted at a recent GEF event in Grenada.

La Paz Group contributor Phil Karp has long been our guide into marine ecosystems, with both citizen science and social entrepreneurship posts on his work with groups in Belize and other parts of the Caribbean focused on these goals.

This collaboration with Sarah Wyatt,  a colleague from the Global Environment Facility, illustrates the on-going market-based approaches to managing the invasive species while creating new cottage industry opportunities.

Seeing a lionfish while diving in the Caribbean is a cause for mixed emotions.  On the one hand, one marvels at the exquisite beauty of the fishes’ flowery fins and its amazing adaptability to a range of habitats, from shallow estuaries with low salinity to deep reef environments. But then you remember that these fish don’t belong in the Caribbean, and that the very versatility noted above makes them an invasive menace. Indeed, if the fish you are looking at is a female, she may be carrying up to 30,000 eggs, and may have thirty or more native fish or crustaceans in her stomach.

One of the many impacts of the Anthropocene era on global biodiversity is the increased spread of invasive species, like the lionfish, due to rapid globalization. With the United Nations Ocean Conference taking place in New York next week, the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans and marine resources is high on the international agenda.  While long recognized as an environmental and biodiversity threat, invasive species also pose a threat to livelihoods, particularly in developing countries where incomes may be heavily dependent upon a single sector or product.

Traditionally, efforts to eradicate or control invasive species have been focused on public sector interventions.  But control efforts are often expensive and are either out of reach, or pose severe strains on limited budgets of developing countries.  Hence there has been growing attention to identification of market-based control approaches which create commercial incentives for removing the invaders, providing a financially sustainable means of control… Continue reading

A Big Fish Story We Can Get Behind

Cool video from the Red Sea of a moray eel (Gymnothorax javanicus) preying on a lionfish (Pterois miles).

Morays are quick to chow down on lionfish carcasses in the Caribbean and will readily accept (or steal) lionfish off of a spear (although such feeding is a BAD idea as it causes them to associate divers with food).

Let’s hope they will begin to hunt lionfish o their own in the Caribbean as well.

Invasion, Proliferation, Hunt–A New Paradigm

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Bill Booth with one of the Burmese pythons that are wreaking havoc upon the Everglades’ fragile ecosystem. Photograph: Roger Booth

Pythons, Everglades & Unintended Consequences

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Thanks to Anthropocene for providing a summary of recent science on a topic of concern in these pages from time to time in the last few years:

Invading pythons and the weird, uncertain future of the Florida Everglades

Catch Da Lion

Our contributors have posted frequently about the implications of lionfish as invasive species on this site, but we’re always happy to support new programs and initiatives, especially in Belize.

This one is particularly fun and informative, explaining exactly how to manage the spines, how to catch them, how to eat them and how to wear them!

Multiple programs are popping up to help reduce the impact of this invasive species…

Get involved!

  1. Ask your local dive shop, tour operator or tour guide about going out to catch lionfish! Many businesses around Belize offer guests the chance to go out and remove lionfish from our beautiful reefs!
  2. Find that friend who has a boat and head out to the reef to go catch lionfish yourself! See the FAQ below for more information on the tools you will need!
  3. Organize or participate in a Lionfish tournament! Lionfish tournaments have been organized in San Pedro, Caye Caulker, Dangriga and Placencia. Anybody can form a team and enter to catch the most, biggest & smallest lionfish for prizes and good fun!Interested in organizing one, contact us here for support regarding best practices, tournament rules and the materials you will need to get started!
  4. OR, join one of Blue Ventures’ Lionfish expeditions, to get involved in research & culling efforts in Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve!
  5. OR join ReefCI’s lionfish programme

Now you try!

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ReefCl Annual Report 2016

The citizen science activities we’ve discussed during this past year go beyond bird counts and uploading data. In the case of the invasive lionfish, participants have to really get their feet wet, so to speak.

In addition to creating a viable income in local fishing communities affected by the lionfish invasion by the developing the market for the meat and the spines, numerous organizations invite volunteers to assist in the eradication process itself. Continue reading

If You Happen to Be In Gainsville

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We’ve been posting on the environmental impact of the invasive lionfish ever since contributor Phil Karp took on the project of building a demand for the notoriously difficult to catch fish. Helping to build a market for the delicious meat and beautiful spines created income for local fishermen and their families in numerous areas of the Caribbean.

ReefSavers was created with all these goals in mind. Founded to gain control of the Lionfish population in the southeast US and Caribbean, they work toward both harvesting and developing a stable market in which supply can always meet the current demands. By unifying

the organizations working to control the Lionfish outbreak into a cohesive market place. Channeling all harvested Lionfish through a centralized market place will allow for a more stabilized fishery. With the creation of the Lionfish Market Place organizations will have a centralized place to sell their catch and buyers will not have to worry about limited supplies. By opening the Lionfish Market buyers for the whole state of Florida will be connected with a more constant supply, in turn this access will help to grow the industry and put revenue into the hands of the people trying to fight the outbreak.

The ReefSavers team came up with innovative strategies to help with supply and demand logistics, fanning the market for the fish for both chefs and more importantly, consumers. Welcome the Lionfish Invasion Tour in Gainsville, Florida! Continue reading

Lionfish Tales

This is issue has been on our radar for some time, in most part due to contributor Phil Karp‘s posts on his work with groups in Belize and other parts of the Caribbean focused on this goal. The concept of “If You Can’t Beat ’em, Wear ’em” carries a powerful message of innovative practices to manage the invasive species that’s causing havoc in the southern Atlantic and Caribbean waters. Continue reading

Can Beetles Stop the Hemlock Woody Adelgid?

Headlines from news sources responding to a pair of scientific articles from 2013 that highlighted the importance of scale in assessing the effect of invasive species. Photo by Diana Lutz.

Headlines from news sources responding to a pair of scientific articles from 2013 that highlighted the importance of scale in assessing the effect of invasive species. Photo by Diana Lutz.

Five years ago this month, I wrote in a post titled Preventing Invasive Fire that, “Absolute regulation of invasive species is not possible. We cannot search every inch of soil that enters a country for microorganisms, dormant insect eggs, or plant seeds. But controls must be imposed, and more severe ones than currently in place. The intensely focused damage (biodiversity loss) that a male and female zebra mussel, emerald ash borer beetle, Asian carp, or fire ant can have on a vulnerable ecosystem is much greater than the thinned-out costs of higher taxes or more stringent customs inspections.”

The following year, I discussed the merits of Integrated Pest Management in helping eradicate or at least control pests, which are sometimes introduced from other countries. Reading today about a plan in North Carolina to use beetles as a predator of the hemlock woody adelgid, an aphid-like invasive species from east Asia, I am reminded of those two posts from the past, inspired by Cornell courses in environmental governance and entomology.

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Lionfish Trap Tests in Pensacola Show Promise

Lionfish traps are currently being tested in the waters off of Pensacola.
Photo by Dr. Steve Gittings

There is no shortage of lionfish posts here, as a quick search of the site will show. Off the coast of Pensacola, Florida, we’re encouraged to hear that there is good news from the trapping scene – rather than speargun hunting, which has certain limits. Although we aren’t told how the tested traps avoid catching other fish than the target, it sounds like progress is being made. Jeremy Morrison reports:

Eighteen miles out into the Gulf of Mexico, lying in wait about a hundred feet deep, are a collection of contraptions that have Steve Gittings “pretty encouraged” and “really kinda jazzed.”

“I’m kinda pleasantly surprised about what we found in Pensacola,” said Gittings, science coordinator for the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Sanctuary.

Since July, Gittings and a his collaborators have been conducting tests on some prototypes of a lionfish trap he designed. In late August, the scientist wrote a report detailing what he considers to be the initial successes revealed during this summer’s testing.

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New Zealand Plans to Eliminate Invasive Mammals

Illustration of a Brown Kiwi chick. A History of the Birds of New Zealand. 2nd ed. by W.L. Buller (London, 1888). page 326 via WikiMedia Commons

It is not surprising that one of the nations that stands to lose the most from invasive mammals is also the first country in the world to announce its ambitious plan to remove them all by 2050, but the islands of New Zealand have a lot of work ahead of them to eradicate animals like rats, stoats, and possums – around nineteen and a half million US dollars worth of work, which will be the government investment in a new public-private joint venture called Predator Free New Zealand Limited . And now that deforestation has been controlled better, it’s time to protect the country’s wildlife another way. The kiwi illustrated above, for example, is one of five species in New Zealand, all of which are threatened or endangered, or critically endangered, thanks to predation by invasive mammals that the flightless birds can’t avoid.

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