Invasive Species: The New Reality of “Nature”

Recently, I was explaining proudly to some visitors to the Puntacana Ecological Foundation about our lionfish control program. The lionfish, an invasive species from the Pacific that only a few years ago was introduced to the Caribbean, has been wreaking havoc on the native coral fish populations. With no local predators and an appetite for juvenile fish, the lionfish has quickly adapted to its new environmental, rapidly spreading from the southern United States to South America. International experts have recommended that the best way to limit the damage of invading Lionfish is to control their population locally by intensively harvesting them.

“We have served over 1,000 pounds of lionfish in our best restaurant,” I explained to the visitors. “While the Lionfish is venomous, when you remove the spines, it makes a delicious filet.” In addition to serving Lionfish, we helped form a local association of women artisans that make Lionfish souvenirs to sell to tourists, diversifying the ways that fishermen and their families can benefit from controlling the Lionfish on the reef. We also allow our local dive shop to hunt lionfish when they report large populations. According to our monitoring, as a result of our Lionfish control program, we have effectively controlled the lionfish population on the local coral reef of Puntacana Resort & Club.

Later, it occurred to me later how odd this is. On the one hand, our foundation was dedicated to protecting and restoring the local coral reef as part of our mission to protect the environment. Yet one of the ways we did this was by harvesting large quantities of an unwelcome invasive fish species and preparing it as dinner.

Today, a fundamental part of protecting the environment now consists of managing, controlling and often eliminating invasive species. In other words, the health of Punta Cana’s coral reefs depends, at least in part, on eradicating an animal that ordinarily can only be found on the other side of the planet. Protecting the environment means choosing which species can and should be allowed to exist in different places and eliminating the species we determine doesn’t belong.

Feral Cat

Feral Cat

Invasive species are not limited to exotic animals. In the Punta Cana region, we recently observed a substantial increase in the number of feral cats. While not generally considered an invasive species in their domesticated house cat form, we began seeing wild cats in and around our restaurants and kitchens, in and around gardens and private homes, and even in our Ecological Reserve. Cats, expert and prodigious hunters, instinctually hunt many types of animals including birds, small mammals, and reptiles and represent a threat to local biodiversity. While they often control rate populations, they also can have a profound impact on local wildlife, introduce disease and cause damage to homes and private property. We are still struggling to identify a humane and ecological strategy to confront this problem.

In fact, the introduction of exotic species to different environments is so common that it is almost the norm. In the Dominican Republic, raccoons have been introduced to Saona Island and donkeys have taken over Cabritos Island, causing widespread damage to the local island flora and fauna. Several institutions have dedicated programs to remove them in order to protect native species. Similarly, exotic catfish and floating water hyacinth have for many years impacted the Ozama River, which ends near Santo Domingo. Both species are deeply impacting the health of the river, outcompeting local species and clogging waterways. The solution to these exotic species will be both difficult and expensive.

More recently, the Mediterranean Fly, an introduced species of fruit fly that attacks several commercially important fruits and vegetables, was discovered in the eastern DR. As a result, the United States closed exportation of certain crops from the Dominican Republic, causing millions of dollars of damage to local producers and requiring an intensive and costly control program.

In reality, the rapid transport and constant movement of people and goods across the planet has facilitated a persistent mixing of species probably never seen before in human history. While not limited to the Dominican Republic, the damage incurred by invasive species on islands can be magnified due to limited space and the presence of evolutionarily unique species not adapted to confront newly introduced species. These invaders have required environmental groups to create new strategies, often focused on controlling certain undesirable species and blurring the lines of environmental protection to include the eradication of certain plants and animals from certain places. This new reality and its environmental costs seem likely to increase in the coming years.

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