Invasive Species Workshop
HRI sponsors workshop in Feb 2007
Participants discuss invasive species (left), Dr Wes Tunnell (center), Dr. Darryl Felder (right)
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Dr. Thomas Shirley, the HRI's endowed chair of marine
biodiversity and conservation science, and
Dr. Wes Tunnell, the Associate Director of HRI, organized the Gulf of Mexico/Caribbean Marine Invasive Species Workshop hosted by the HRI Feb 26-28, 2007.
Co-hosting the workshop with the HRI was the
Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
(SERC), which has on staff several scientists studying marine
invasive species around the world.
Shirley brought the HRI and SERC together through his professional
relationship with SERCs Director, Dr. Anson (Tuck) Hines. "Hines and I were
working together at Kodiak Island last year and devised this workshop as a way of picking everybodyís
brains as to the different aspects of the problem of invasive
species and to different techniques being used to study it," Shirley
Orange cup coral, Tubastraea coccinea, is an invasive species in the Gulf of Mexico.
Thirty-five invited researchers, managers and others concerned with
the impacts of non-native species participated, selected for their
expertise and knowledge of invasive species. In addition to
scientists from the US, scientists from several nations bordering
the Caribbean, including Venezuela, Jamaica, Trinidad-Tabago and
The workshop examined the issues
surrounding marine invasive species in the Gulf of Mexico and
broader Caribbean region. The purpose was to explore the needs for monitoring, evaluating and controlling
"We had the top invasive species expert in the
world, Dr. Jim Carlton, as our keynote speaker," Shirley said.
The Problem with Invasive Species
Due to the globalization of the planet, mass transit and
international commerce, invasive species is becoming an increasing
"You can go online and order oysters from anywhere and have them
shipped to you live. Or bait worms shipped in seaweed, which can
carry over 100 live species with it," Shirley said.
Green mussels taking over the intertidal waters in Tampa
Bay and giant spotted jellyfish shutting down shrimping in the northern
Gulf of Mexico are two real examples of how invasive species have
affected quality of life and the local economy in the Gulf region.
"We donít have a marine version of fire ants or
Africanized bees or tree frogs but marine invasive species are just
as real as the land-based variety," Shirley said. "We
sit in fire ants and know the problem right away. People arenít as
much aware of marine invasive species. They havenít made the same splash but
they are a very real issue."
The problem that HRI's invasive species workshop addressed was that
of non-native species becoming an increasing threat to marine
coastal environments and their
biodiversity. Because these organisms come from outside a region,
they present a complex set of research and management challenges.
Invasive Species in the Gulf of Mexico
The US Gulf Coast extends over four unique marine regions
and the Mexican Gulf Coast incorporates additional ones. The
Caribbean region includes several island groups with diverse
tropical environments and a large number of endemic species.
The regions also have drilling platforms that
provide habitat and active ports that facilitate movement of species via ballast water
or fouling on ship hulls.
Ballast water from ships traveling great distances is a common method for
invasive species to move from one environment to another.
Even ships that go from one US port to another can transport
invasive species. Laws
that would protect us in international waters donít apply to
For example, the US government keeps a ready reserve of military and
maritime ships to be used in case of national emergency. Anchored in
a bay near San Francisco, these ships are destined to be transported
to Brownsville, Texas, to be dismantled bringing with them fouling
communities from San Francisco Bay, Shirley said.
The ships were never meant to be
stable when empty so they will be filled with San Francisco Bay water (and larvae
that lives in it) when they reach the Gulf of Mexico.
Ballast water holds zooplankton and phytoplankton or larvae of
benthic organisms like crabs, clams. Release of ballast water into a
new environment can bring red tide or other marine maladies, as the organisms may not cause a problem in their native habitat but can cause a
big problem in a new location.
Dr. Shirley's Research
Shirley is especially interested in artificial reefs
created by human-made structures such as oil and gas platforms and
ship wrecks in the Gulf,
which help contribute to the survival of
invasive species by providing habitat.
"Invasive species is one of the major issues Iím
studying," Shirley said. "I do a lot of deep water biology, looking at animals
that live on ships (tankers and freighters) sunk by U-boats
during World War II in the Gulf of Mexico." Since the
shipwrecks are found at depths to 2,000 meters and deeper below the surface, he uses
remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) equipped with cameras to conduct
"Deep sea shipwrecks are surrogates for deep water platforms," he
said. And nowadays with the oil industry reaching deeper and deeper
for oil in the Gulf (below 10,000 feet in some places), knowledge of
deep water habitat is valuable.
"When the platforms end their life, the oil companies have to
remove the drilling structure one year after production ends. They
would prefer to leave them there as artificial reefs. Rigs to Reef
program allows them to do that in shallow water. But we donít have
data that allows them to do that in deep water," Shirley explained.
"We are looking at six different World War II shipwrecks that had
been down there for 62 years when we sampled them. You get very strong communities
of sea life around ship wrecks so the same could be true of
"In the Gulf of Mexico we have 60
percent of the worldís oil platforms, most of which are standing offshore in
deep water, in effect creating a steel archipelago," Shirley said.
"They make great study platforms. We are submitting research
proposals to various agencies to address the problems," Shirley
In addition to studying invasive species, Shirley is an
invertebrate taxonomist, constantly working on describing new
species he finds and other scientists find. "Most of the species of
the world are un-described," he said. "Some are important, but you donít know it til
© 2007 Harte Research Institute
World-traveling tankers are one of
the main means of transport for invasive species.