When a foreign species arrives in a new environment and spreads to cause some form of economic, health, or ecological harm, it’s called a biological invasion. Often stowing away among the cargo of ships and aircraft, such invaders cause billions of dollars of economic loss annually across the globe and have devastating impacts on the environment.
While the number of introductions which eventually lead to such invasions is rising across the globe, most accidental introduction events involve small numbers of individuals and species showing up in a new area.
But new research published today in Science has found that hundreds of marine species travelled from Japan to North America in the wake of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami (which struck the east coast of Japan with devastating consequences).
Marine introductions result from biofouling, the process by which organisms start growing on virtually any submerged surface. Within days a slimy bacterial film develops. After months to a few years (depending on the water temperature) fully formed communities may be found, including algae, molluscs such as mussels, bryozoans, crustaceans, and other animals.
Current biosecurity measures, such as antifouling on ships and border surveillance, are designed to deal with a steady stream of potential invaders. But they are ill-equipped to deal with an introduction event of the scale recorded along most of the North American coast. This would be just as true for Australia, with its extensive coastlines, as it is for North America.
This research, led by James Carlton of Williams College, shows that over a few years after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, many marine organisms arrived along the west coast of North America on debris derived from human activity. The debris ranged from small pieces of plastic to buoys, to floating docks and damaged marine vessels. All of these items harboured organisms. Across the full range of debris surveyed, scores of individuals from roughly 300 species of marine creatures arrived alive. Most of them were new to North America.
The tsunami swept coastal infrastructure and many human artefacts out to sea. Items that had already been in the water before the tsunami carried their marine communities along with them. The North Pacific Current then transported these living communities across the Pacific to Alaska, British Columbia, Oregon, Washington and California.
What makes this process unusual is the way a natural extreme event – the earthquake and associated tsunami – gave rise to an extraordinarily large introduction event because of its impact on coastal infrastructure. The researchers argue that this event is of unprecedented magnitude, constituting what they call “tsunami-driven megarafting”: rafting being the process by which organisms may travel across oceans on debris – natural or otherwise.
It’s not known how many of these new species will establish themselves and spread in their new environment. But, given what we know about the invasion process, it’s certain at least some will. Often, establishment and initial population growth is hidden, especially in marine species. Only once it is either costly or impossible to do something about a new species, is it detected.
Biosecurity surveillance systems are designed to overcome this problem, but surveillance of an entire coast for multiple species is a significant challenge.
Perhaps one of the largest questions the study raises is whether this was a once off event. Might similar future occurrences be expected? Given the rapid rate of coastal infrastructure development, the answer is clear: this adds a new dimension to coastal biosecurity that will have to be considered.
Investment in coastal planning and early warning systems will help, as will reductions in plastic pollution. But such investment may be of little value if action is not taken to adhere to, and then exceed, nationally determined contributions to the Paris Agreement. Without doing so, a climate change-driven sea level rise of more than 1 m by the end of the century may be expected. This will add significantly to the risks posed by the interactions between natural extreme events and the continued development of coastal infrastructure. In other words, this research has uncovered what might be an increasingly common new ecological process in the Anthropocene – the era of human-driven global change.
Australia and New Zealand were claiming a conservation success this week, when their resolution against lethal “scientific” whaling was adopted at the International Whaling Commission’s biennial meeting in Slovenia. But in reality the non-binding decision will do little to stop Japan’s whaling program.
This resolution aims to tighten the loophole that allows nations to catch whales under the guise of scientific whaling. It provides for greater oversight of the currently self-assessed special permits for lethal scientific whale research.
After the disappointment of failing to establish a South Atlantic whale sanctuary, the anti-whaling bloc of nations at the IWC meeting have hailed the latest resolution, with Australia’s environment minister Josh Frydenberg describing the decision as “a big win”.
Japan conducts its whaling under a self-issued permit, under Article VIII of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. This article allows a country to grant its nationals special licence “to kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research subject to such restrictions as to number and subject to such other conditions as the Contracting Government thinks fit”.
In 2014 the International Court of Justice ruled Japan’s JARPA II whaling program illegal on the basis that it was “not for the purposes of scientific research” and therefore in breach of Article VIII. But crucially it did not ban all future scientific whaling activities by Japan.
After the decision, Japan created a new research programme called NEWREP-A (New Scientific Whale Research Program in the Antarctic Ocean), which purported to have different scientific methods to its predecessor.
As Japan no longer recognises the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice regarding “living resources of the sea”, arguments on adherence to the broader principle laid down in the decision would possibly be in vain.
This brings us back to the new resolution, which was brought to the IWC by Australia, New Zealand and other anti-whaling nations in a bid to make it harder for nations such as Japan to issue themselves with special permits for scientific whaling.
The underlying principle is Australia’s repeated assertion that “lethal scientific research is simply not necessary”.
Japan’s new NEWREP-A program included the killing of 333 minke whales in the 2015-16 season, and the IWC’s Scientific Committee was powerless to prevent Japan from proceeding, given that the conditions of special permits are currently self-assessed and can proceed without scientific endorsement from the committee.
The new resolution establishes a Working Group under the Convention, which will consider the Scientific Committee’s recommendations in relation to all special permits. It also gives a greater role to the Commission in the process of issuing special permits.
The aim is to apply much greater scrutiny to the granting of special permits, rather than allowing nations simply to award them to themselves. Plans for special permits are requested to be submitted to the new working group at least six months in advance of the Scientific Committee’s meeting, alongside the data used to back up a country’s claims to be running a scientific whaling program. These data will be evaluated both during the program’s development, and during ongoing and final reviews.
These inquiries into the special permit will then be presented to the IWC itself, which will form its own official view on the proposed whaling program and publish its findings.
Overall, the resolution gives the Commission a much greater role in deciding whether a given nation should be allowed to kill whales. But resolutions are not legally binding, and there is no function to penalise those who do not follow them.
In response to the new resolution, Japan’s Commissioner to the IWC said that Japan “will abide by the Convention itself”. This implies that Japan will continue to apply its own interpretation of the Convention, and will not follow the extra steps outlined in the new resolution.
So despite the new emphasis on applying scientific scrutiny to whaling permits, at a higher level than before within the IWC’s structure, this actually doesn’t mean much in practical terms for Japan. The reality is that Japan will continue to act independently of IWC advice due to its view on what Article VIII means.
As a result, Japan is unlikely to stop killing whales any time soon, despite the efforts of Australia, New Zealand and other anti-whaling nations to shut the program down.