I am pleased to be participating today in Blog Action Day on Climate Change where over 7,500 blogs in 139 countries reaching over 11.5 million readers are participating in writing about climate change from whatever perspective their blog focuses on.
Two stories have really stuck with me this year about how climate change is affecting the marine environment: (1) the enormous infestation of invasive lionfish into the Atlantic and the Caribbean (2) the worldwide explosion of jellyfish swarms. Welcome to the seas that are biting back.
Lionfish are endemic to the Pacific and Indian Oceans and they are a popular aquarium fish for their striking appearance. With venomous spines and voracious appetites, sadly, they are now eating their way through the reefs of the Caribbean and the Atlantic. Researchers state it is “one of the most rapid marine invasions in history. Like a plague of locusts.”
According to a report on Earthdive.com “Researchers believe lionfish were introduced into the Atlantic in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew shattered a private aquarium and six of them spilled into Miami's Biscayne Bay, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Biologists think the fish released floating sacs of eggs that rode the Gulf Stream north along the U.S. coast, leading to colonization of deep reefs off North Carolina and Bermuda. Lionfish have even been spotted as far north as Rhode Island in summer months, NOAA said.”
The Earthdive report goes on to say that "The red lionfish is showing up everywhere — from the coasts of Cuba and Hispaniola to Little Cayman's pristine Bloody Bay Wall, one of the region's prime destinations for divers. Wherever it appears, the adaptable predator corners fish and crustaceans up to half its size with its billowy fins and sucks them down in one violent gulp. Research teams observed one lionfish eating 20 small fish in less than 30 minutes."
Hurricane Andrew was one of those very powerful hurricanes which we know are fueled by global warming. Species migration or accidental release into their non-endemic environment, such as the lionfish invasion, is one of those instances where fragile ecological systems are upset and can be devastated by triggers from global warming events.
The problem with the lionfish is now devastating the reefs off of the Bahamas. NPR had a report in August that illuminated just how much havoc this infestation is causing:
“In 2005, the first lionfish showed up [on the Bahamas reef], and we didn't pay much attention to it," says Oregon State University zoology professor Mark Hixon, who has studied reef fish here for almost two decades. "The next year, we saw a few more. Then in 2007 there was a population explosion. There were so many lionfish around that they were eating the fish we were studying, and we had to start studying the lionfish. There was nothing else to do." They're hard to miss with their red and white stripes and a tall row of venomous spines down their backs. The fan-like fins look like a lion's mane. And like lions, they are ferocious predators. Last year, Hixon co-authored a study with Mark Albins that showed a lionfish can kill three-quarters of a reef's fish population in just five weeks.”
REEF is an organization of divers and marine conservationists that has an active Lionfish Invasion Program ongoing in the Caribbean: “Beginning in January of 2007, REEF has partnered with local dive operators to help document lionfish sightings and collect lionfish samples for NOAA and Bahamian researchers. As of August 2007, over 400 fish have been documented. To aid in this effort, REEF is enlisting interested divers and snorkelers to join in on organized lionfish projects. These projects are led by REEF staff, national aquarium staff, and/or scientific researchers and include educational lectures on current lionfish research as well as daily diving opportunities.”
For more on the lionfish invasion and its relation to climate change see this illuminating blogpost by marine scientist Rick MacPherson titled "Brave New World?"
UPDATE to this post October 15, 2010:
Read IPSNewservice: JAMAICA: Invasive Lionfish Go From Predator to Prey Oct.12, 2010
Jellyfish explosion worldwide
The rise in large swarms of jellyfish in many areas across the globe may be linked to ocean acidity and the heating of the oceans caused by global warming. They survive and thrive in ocean dead zones and are an indication of an ecosystem that is out of balance.
From Earth Island Journal: “Reports of voracious jellyfish swarms are on the rise – they’re being seen in greater numbers, tighter concentrations, and more areas than ever before. To make matters worse, many of the most disruptive swarms are occurring in seas that were, until recently, too cold for jellyfish. As global ocean temperatures steadily rise, many fishermen, scientists, and beach-goers may be watching a real-life environmental horror movie unfold before their very eyes.” See Earth Island’s full article here.
When I traveled to Oahu in June, I was fascinated to see that the Hawaii Beach Safety people have dedicated a whole website to inform the public about the box jellyfish that are present in the water near the beach 7 – 11 days after the full moon. The presence of box jellyfish and Portgugese Man-of War jellyfish are a real problem now for certain days of the month in the waters off Oahu. See website.
The National Science Foundation has an excellent presentation titled Jellyfish Gone wild! on the jellyfish explosion on their website, complete with maps of seriously affected areas.
The jellyfish and lionfish infestations are just more symptoms of the serious imbalance in the marine environment. Let’s hope the United Nations Meeting on Climate Change in Copenhagen in December will result in an ambitious agenda to reduce carbon emissions and set us toward a right path. Maybe they could serve the delegates of the industrialized countries some deep fried lionfish or jellyfish fritters to see if they like it. Pretty soon they may be the only seafood option available on the menu.
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