Algae bloom means evolution in reverse

In the early 1980s, the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco decorated its fish tanks with lush, colorful, seaweed normally found in tropical oceans.

Several years later, somebody dumped the plants into the Mediterranean Sea.

Marine biologist Alexandre Meinesz, a professor at the University of Nice, France, watched as the marine algae, Caulerpa taxifolia, quickly spread along the French, Italian, and Spanish coasts, covering the seafloor and wiping out other marine life in a thick green blanket.

Dr. Meinesz's pleas to academic and government officials went unheeded for years until it was too late. The "killer algae," as the French press dubbed it, had taken over large swaths of the Mediterranean coastline and proved impervious to efforts to kill it, including the use of a marine snail. With raised publicity came heated scientific disputes and lawsuits over who was to blame.

By the mid-1990s, however, international scientific organizations recognized the threat, and the United Nations declared it a major problem in 1998.

Meinesz's new book "Killer Algae" (University of Chicago Press) narrates his personal odyssey to learn more about the algae and his jousts with French bureaucrats who denied responsibility and delayed action - what he considers a case study in how not to handle an invasive exotic species. He also reflects on the increasing threats to biodiversity. Meinesz spoke recently with the Monitor.

What is the killer algae, and why is it a problem?

It never killed anyone. It was a name given by the media. The problem is that it is an invader for the first time in the Mediterranean Sea. It never existed before 1984. This algae loves all the sea bottom and can grow on rock, on sand, in polluted harbors, along the shoreline. Everywhere. It is very competitive and grows faster than all the other plants. It is a major invader.

In your book, you blame French government officials for ignoring the problem. Is this peculiar to France? Have other nations done a better job at controlling introduced species?

In the sea, people don't see it as a problem. In the United States, England, and Australia, you have seen what happens with invasive species on land, and you see it is a major problem. But in France, we have few examples of this. Besides, the algae is underwater. French authorities didn't understand at the beginning. Only now they understand, but it's a little late.

Given that international trade is booming and organisms are moving from place to place faster than ever, what can be done to stop the next one?

For the sea, there must be international rules for purifying ballast water from ships. We are transporting many things, and that has never happened before.

Second is the aquarium trade. Entire ecosystems, reefs, and animals are being moved around the globe. It is better to see tropical fishes in nearby aquariums, but not in other countries. Aquaculture, too, is a problem. New species are grown in places where they shouldn't be living, where they don't have natural enemies.

What are the lessons from "Killer Algae"?

First is the ecological lesson, that we must preserve biodiversity. [Famous Harvard ecologist] E.O. Wilson said that the first damage to biodiversity is the destruction of habitat, the second is invasive species. This is evolution in reverse.

Instead of a separation of species, with transportation by man, we are putting species back together, and only a few strong ones will dominate the world. That is a very strange thing.

The second lesson is the decline of the study of ecology. Science has become too specialized.

The third is the media. The scientists who work in ecology must not only publish in scientific papers but they must communicate in the media. They must do both. It is very difficult for us. It is not good for our career, but it is important that we must say what is wrong on our earth. This is a new ethic for scientists because scientists do not like to do this.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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