2017, High School, Prose
The fins. Always watch for the fins. Deadly fans laced with venomous spines. Captivatingly beautiful whites and oranges. But I knew that if you were close enough to see their colors, you were already dead. They came in hundreds, mercilessly slaughtering everything in sight, and once their rampage had started, they couldn’t be stopped. But they weren’t always here. Before those strange, bipedal creatures dropped these monsters on our reefs, we lived in peace. Now, we live our lives in fear, praying to those who savaged the monsters on us to take them back. We are but nothing in the face of these monsters. I can’t even ー KRRRRKKKKK . Thump. Thump. From above, a piece of decaying coral had been dislodged from its place on the reef, clumsily bouncing off the rocky ledges into the abyss. Ascending past the rocky ledge, the beams of sunlight filtering through the depths illuminated the now empty space on the reef. Moving closer, I could see nothing strange aside from the exposed stone on the reef. Then, in my periphery, movement. Within the curtain of algae, an unmistakable flash of orange and white, shifted above the reef. Slowly, 18 venom-laced needles materialized into a deadly fan. It had emerged from nothingness. The fan grew larger. There was no escape. I tried to swim. FWOOSH . The force of the water was paralyzing. I couldn’t move. Closer. Closer. So it was true. Orange. White. Orange. White. Black.
No, the “invaders” in that story are not some crazy fish-alien hybrid from a sci-fi novel. The “invaders” are Pterois, more commonly known as zebrafish or lionfish, an invasive species native to the Indo-Pacific that has threatened marine ecosystems and reefs in the West Atlantic, Caribbean Sea, and Mediterranean Sea. An invasive species, according to the US State Department of Agriculture, are “ plants, animals, or pathogens that are non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration and whose introduction causes or is likely to cause harm.” Lionfish, characterized by their striking coloration and venomous spines, have been a nuisance to these areas because they rapidly become top-level predators that decimate native fish populations. Their growth is often times uncontested because they have no natural predators; this is due to the fact that they are introduced to areas in which the pre-existing dominant predator is not evolved to attack prey with venom. These areas can be anywhere in the world, as the spreading of lionfish as an invasive species stems from the international exotic pet trade. Researchers speculate that for up to 25 years, humans have been dumping unwanted pet lionfish from home aquariums into wild waters. Unfortunately, lionfish are not the only example; another extremely harmful invasive species is Caulerpa taxifolia, a strain of green seaweed that was intended to be used in private aquariums, but has escaped into the Mediterranean. This algae is a perfect example of an invasive species that doesn’t explicitly hunt other organisms, but rather damages the health of the ecosystem by consuming so many resources so that other marine life cannot thrive. These organisms are only two examples of the 4,300 species of plants and animals in the US that are now considered invasive. However, the issue of removing invasive species has only recently started to be addressed, while the magnitude of the issue has been growing for years. At this point, the only means of solving this issue is what started it: human intervention.
Invasive species have interfered with ecosystems around the world since the first ship was made, and through the rapid development of human technology, invasive species have become an increasingly serious issue. Causes of invasive species can be divided into two categories: indirect human action, where the growth of invasive species is a byproduct of human activity; and direct human action, where humans purposely introduce a non-native organism to a foreign environment. Ship ballast, water drawn in from the ocean to balance the buoyancy of ships, is the largest contributor to the spread of marine invasive species, as it traps small organisms in the ballast tanks underneath massive ocean liners and deposits them in foreign waters. As human technology progresses, allowing for larger and larger vessels to be created, invasive species are being spread in greater volumes, quickening the destruction of native habitats. Sea temperature rise, another outcome of human technological advancement, is another significant contributor to the spread of invasive species, as previously colder areas of the ocean become warm enough to accommodate species that could not thrive there before, wiping out pre-existing native organisms. Ship ballast water and sea temperature rise are two examples of indirect human action, and account for the majority of invasive species. Direct human action, though it occurs on a smaller scale, can be extremely damaging to local environments, and in the case of certain organisms, spread uncontrollably. The most iconic example of direct human action is the global exotic pet trade, where non-native organisms are shipped across the world as pets. Oftentimes these pets are bought while they are still young, and as they grow older, they can grow to undesirable sizes, resulting in them being dumped into the local environment. The “invaders,” or lionfish, in the story above are a prime example of an invasive species that has devastated ecosystems after being dumped into the wild by irresponsible pet owners. As a former exotic pet owner myself, I recognize the appeal in owning an organism from some fantastical, faraway land, but after years of caring for my pet, I realized that he truly did not belong in a 3×6 cage halfway across the world from his original habitat. I cared for him until he passed away and never purchased another exotic pet again. I hope that other pet owners will have the same realization as me, and care for their organism for the remainder of its life instead of releasing it to the wild.
Even in colonial times invasive species posed an enormous threat to biodiversity and native life, potentially even more than they do today. Why? Human ignorance. For the hundreds of years humans have been bending nature to our will, we never, if not rarely, accounted for our impact on the environment, and how that could return as a threat to our commerce and lifestyle. Humans have lived isolated in their own bubble of success, ignoring the interconnectedness of all life on earth. Our current situation is a double-edged sword. The state of our ecosystems are so dire that a reversal of the change may not be possible. However, the same state of urgency, fused with human ingenuity, may save our world. I believe, like many scientists addressing the issue of invasive species, that education is the first step in the removal of these organisms. This is exemplified by the National Invasive Species Act of 1996, an act that not only regulates when ships can release ballast water, but also provides funding for invasive species control research and education. Once people recognize the brevity of the effect that invasive species have on the environment, and how they can directly affect human lives, only then can coordinated, efficient removal of these organisms can occur. Even state governments have bolstered policy on the removal of these species, encouraging smaller, private organizations to work with the state government. For example, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has establish the Invasive Species Program to focus on removing invasive species from the zebra mussel to the Nerodia watersnake. Furthermore, wildlife departments around the world are encouraging people to partake in citizen science, tracking, capturing, and even removing invasive species. Often times citizens who participate are rewarded, raising awareness of the issue and encouraging others to join. Spearfishermen in the Caribbean are a perfect example. They are encouraged to spear lionfish and any other invasive species in addition to the fish in their quotas. As a result, these fisherman generate more income from the excess fish plus the reward from the wildlife departments, creating a win-win solution for everyone (except the fish). Everything that has been done so far, from the Invasive Species Act to partnerships between state and private organizations to citizen science, is an incredible start, but more can be done. There are 7 billion of us on the Earth, and if we all understood how dangerous invasive species truly are, then maybe we could reverse the devastation we’ve indirectly inflicted.
FWOOSH. Two inches away the lifeless eyes of the invader stared back, its contorted, twisted body reddening the surrounding water. With a shiver and twist, the invader’s corpse slid off its attacker’s sleek body, a massive rod of reflective material, tipped with a dangerous barb. A wall of bubbles materialized, briefly masking the appendage of the strange, bipedal creature. With its grasping limb, the creature released the invader, its body began to sink. As the creature’s dark silhouette ascended towards the light of the surface, the invader was engulfed by the depths. Orange. White. Orange. White. Black.
“Aquatic Species.” United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Libray. Accessed May 19, 2017. https://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/aquatics/caulerpa.shtml.
“Invasive Species.” National Geographic. Accessed May 19, 2017. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/invasive-species/.
“Invasive Species Program.” California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Accessed May 19, 2017. https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Invasives.
“National Invasive Species Act.” In Wikipedia . https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Invasive_Species_Act.
“Pterois.” In Wikipedia . https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pterois.
United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Library. Accessed May 19, 2017. https://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/index.shtml.
“Why are lionfish a growing problem in the Atlantic Ocean?” National Ocean Service. Accessed May 19, 2017. http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/lionfish.html.
I clearly remember the first time I went snorkeling in Hawaii, watching the vibrancy of the reef shimmer in the undulation of the ocean current. I’ve come to realize that the biodiversity of our planet is precious and needs to be preserved; however, the ignorance that has accompanied human innovation has jeopardized this diversity. It’s painful to see the beauty of the natural world fade away before my very eyes knowing that I played a role in its destruction. It’s even more painful to see others turn a blind eye and ignore the collapse of the ecosystems around us. I specifically chose the topic invasive species because it’s one of the causes of ocean pollution that is often overlooked or diluted. This is a real issue that affects not only the ecosystems of the Earth, but our lifestyles as well.