Archive for January, 2013

Mitigation Still Has a Pulse

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

Finally, in his inauguration speech, President Obama spoke some of the words we so badly need to hear from him: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

Given the Congress he has been dealt, there is little that he can actually do that requires Congressional approval. But those working at other levels of government should feel reassured.

And there are critical initiatives at other levels, planning various efforts to mitigate climate change, not just adapt to it with fortifications.

The principle of cap-and -trade is simple. Making it work in the real world can be very complicated (climatepedia.org).

The principle of cap-and -trade is simple. Making it work in the real world can be very complicated (climatepedia.org).

Both the State California and the Province of Quebec have now instituted cap-and-trade policies to try to curb carbon emissions. Cap-and-trade may not be everyone’s preferred approach to mitigation, but it is a start, and the two jurisdictions are attempting a concerted effort – in itself an important event.

Governors of some states – New York and New Jersey, so battered by Hurricane Sandy come to mind – are determined to protect their coasts from the predicted greater storms accompanying climate change, and they are also exploring mitigation, seeking ways to reduce carbon emissions.

Hurricane Sandy was the largest hurricane yet seen (telegraph.co.uk)

Hurricane Sandy was the largest hurricane yet seen (telegraph.co.uk)

But what if a state governor or provincial premier provides no leadership, or even worse, like Governor Rick Scott of Florida, still denies that climate change is human-caused? The four counties of southeast Florida provide us with a remarkable model for response.

The counties are Monroe (includes Key West and the Everglades), Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. Five million people live there, responsible for 37% of the state economy. Political leaders from both political parties have formed the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, ratified by all four counties in late 2009 and early 2010. Last month they held their 4th annual meeting.

Using the best science available, they are responding to what is already happening and preparing for what’s ahead. Rising sea level, salt-water intrusion into underground aquifers and increased violence of storms bashing the coast are their major concerns. And they should be concerned – all the maps of rising sea level indicate that southeast Florida is one of the most vulnerable regions in the US.

Southeast Florida is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise

Southeast Florida is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise

Although adaptive engineering (raised and rerouted roads, pumps on canals, protected buffer areas to create resilience) understandably dominate their plans, they also plan to reduce carbon emissions and to create and encourage rapid public transit. Most importantly, though, they show us that significant action can occur at the county level.

Probably the most effective of all the initiatives are occurring at the city level. The World Mayors Council on Climate Change emphasizes initiatives to reduce carbon emissions. At their meeting three months ago, chaired by the mayor of Seoul, they said the appropriate things, but many of the 260 cities represented are small, and real action is limited. Still, the Council is an important one if only for political reasons.

The most impressive global organization though is C40 Cities Climate Change Leadership Group. Membership in C40 depends on the existence of actual action to mitigate carbon emissions. The mayors of the 63 included megacities and innovator cities share efforts to reduce carbon emissions, providing models for other cities and national governments. This month Vancouver, Oslo, Venice and Washington,D.C. were invited to join.

As NYC Mayor Bloomberg points out, city government has the ability to be ‘nimble’, able to take action quickly.

Adaptation to climate change of course remains essential everywhere on the planet. But mitigation of carbon emissions is not a futile hope. President Obama may not be able to deliver Congressional action to reduce carbon emissions, but he can encourage nimbleness at the state, county and city level. His endorsement can only help.

Now we have to find some way to encourage Canada’s Prime Minister Harper to say something helpful.

A Plague of Lionfish

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

This was unexpected and it is catastrophic, a true ‘Black Swan’ event.

Pacific Red Lionfish invaded the US southeast coast and the Caribbean about a decade ago, and they have now successfully invaded the rest of the Gulf of Mexico, including the coasts of Belize and Texas. They are most common on coral reefs, but they are generalists, and turn up in grass beds, mangroves and rocky caves as well, down to depths of 200 meters.

The Pacific Red Lionfish perhaps looks like seaweed, but in any case it is unfamiliar to small Atlantic fish who are easy prey (ucgs.org).

The Pacific Red Lionfish perhaps looks like seaweed, but in any case it is unfamiliar to small Atlantic fish who are easy prey (ucgs.org).

The invasion probably started from a dumped aquarium on the US south east coast sometime in the 1980s. Now it is the single best example of a successful invasion of a marine fish species. We’re accustomed to invasive marine plants and invertebrates, but fish species are rarely successful. This one is.

Lionfish still had a limited distribution in 2001 (insights.wri.org)

Lionfish still had a limited distribution in 2001 (insights.wri.org)

By 2007 they were common in the Bahamas and parts of the northern Caribbean (insights.wri.org)

By 2007 they were common in the Bahamas and parts of the northern Caribbean (insights.wri.org)

By 2011, lionfish had spread throughout the Caribbean.

By 2011, lionfish had spread throughout the Caribbean.

For a continually updated map of the invasion, check the US Geological Survey website.

With its elaborate fins, stripes and spines, this is one very beautiful fish. The tips of its spines concentrate a powerful neurotoxic venom that protects it from most predators – including any human who handles it too casually. By the time it is an adult it about 45cm (20 inches) long, able to reproduce a few times each month all year long.

The beautiful predator (luis rocha nytimes.org)

The beautiful predator (luis rocha nytimes.org)

It is a slow-swimming predator, eating fish up to about half its size. At the high densities it is now reaching in many communities on many reefs, prey species are declining by 90% or more. The degraded reefs of the Caribbean need an abundance of herbivores if they are ever to recover. so the invasion of lionfish is a further catastrophe in the sad litany of catastrophes that have converted so many of the reefs to algal rubble.

In the Indo-Pacific, large predatory fish like eels, sharks and groupers somehow manage to eat lionfish and help to keep their numbers under control. In the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico we’ve fished out most large fish already, and those that remain are learning to avoid them, not how to eat them without being stunned.

No wonder it is such a successful invader – an efficient and cryptic, with a rapid growth rate and huge reproductive potential, and pretty well free of predators.

So what’s ahead? Either lionfish will become so abundant that they will eat up all the available prey, wreck the available ecosystems, and then starve – a miserable outcome to say the least.

Or we can eat them.

This is an astonishing development. Everywhere in the Caribbean, in the Gulf of Mexico and around Florida we are now encouraged to hunt them down by spear, line or trap. Fishing derbies have emerged in many places. There are no restrictions – just catch and kill as many as you can.

What about those spines and their neurotoxins? Internet videos show you how to handle the fish and clip off the spines. What’s left is free of the toxins.

How to spear a lionfish: Easily done since it swims slowly, but still  be very careful. (seabelize.org)

How to spear a Lionfish: Easily done since it swims slowly, but still be very careful. (seabelize.org)

And lionfish are not just safe to eat, but they are tasty. Again, the internet offers lots of advice on pan frying, stewing, grilling and filleting the fish.

So go forth and kill. As many as you can. We may never have an opportunity like this again – a chance to exploit a new fishery, free of any regulations, a last echo of the old days when all fish were superabundant and we were not.

And if you can’t go killing lionfish, ask your restaurant to include them. This is not a trivial matter – if we don’t stop them, lionfish will wreck whatever is left of the precarious reefs in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.