Tuesday, September 16, 2014

We're Running Out of Sand?!

While some beach erosion is caused by natural forces, most erosion is attributed to human contribution caused by construction and repairing of navigation inlets.  Although these inlets provide a high economic value for Florida’s economy, the damage from new construction causes sand to pile up on one side of the jetty but not the other.  This constant maintenance and construction is taking its toll on Florida’s pristine beaches. 

One way to preserve eroded beaches is through beach nourishment.  Beach renourishment projects have become more widespread throughout the country and have become a very important goal for the state of Florida.  According to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, out of Florida’s 825 miles of beaches, roughly 485 miles, or approximately 59% of Florida’s beaches, are experiencing erosion.  In a typical beach nourishment project, sand is collected from an offshore location by a dredge.  A mixture of sand and water is then piped onto the beach. Once the water drains away, bulldozers smooth and adjust the new sand until the beach matches the design profile.

Florida’s beach fill program typically costs around $100 million per year, with the federal government picking up at least half, Florida spending $30 million, and local governments contributing the rest.  But as time passes, money is not the only issue of concern.  Believe it or not, the lack of sand is what is becoming the main problem.  Because of damning rivers and building harbors, less sediment is being replenished offshore.  Miami-Dade County has already felt the effects of disappearing sand by having to borrow from northern Florida counties.  It is reported that Miami-Dade County is officially out of off shore sand.  It is only a matter of time before the nourishment projects cease to exist due to a lack of sand attributed to factors such as rising sea level and constant slamming of strong storms and hurricanes each year.  With future decisions regarding sand and shoreline replacement up in the air, combined with the continuing advances in expanding sea harbors, damning and severe weather, the future of Florida’s immaculate and perfect beaches remain in question for future decades.  

-Adam Gruszcynski, Legal Intern

50 Years of the "Red List"

Who decides what species are endangered, threatened, extinct, prominent, or otherwise? While a number of different organizations are involved in making such determinations for different purposes, there is a gold standard: the Red List. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (“IUCN”) Red List of Threatened Species provides information about the taxonomy, distribution, and conservation information of plants, animals, and fungi with the purpose of determining the relative risk of extinction. The list encompasses three categories: vulnerable, endangered, and critically endangered. This year marks its 50th anniversary. This month, over eight hundred species were added to the Red List. So, apart from requiring edits to those species’ Wikipedia pages, what does this mean?

In terms of scientific knowledge, what species of flora and fauna are added to the list in a given year can be telling about what is going on in a given area, and can help further other scientific endeavors. For example, most of the mammals added to the list this month were lemurs, and currently 94% of the lemur population is at risk of extinction according to IUCN criteria. That figure clearly indicates that current activities in Madagascar, the only place where lemurs are found, are destructive to that endemic primate group. Furthermore, the IUCN requires substantial quantities of reliable scientific data about a species for its status to be assessed. The wealth data used in IUCN species assessments is also helpful for other applications, and the Red Lists are frequently cited to in scholarly publications.

In terms of practical repercussions, getting onto the Red List often helps threatened species to find protection. Unlike when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists a species endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, being put on the Red List does not automatically trigger protections or regulations. Technically speaking, the list is really just a list, and does not oblige anyone to take any action. Nevertheless, having an IUCN conservation status is an important starting point for many species’ recovery. Getting listed sends a clear signal that actions needs to be taken; and, generally, the message is well-received, influencing policymakers and organizations worldwide. International organizations, countries, and local communities alike let the Red List guide their policies and decision-making.

One major flaw in the Rest List is that certain types of animals have been hugely favored over others. Mammals, birds, amphibians and reef-forming corals are the only “fully assessed” groups in which all known species have been evaluated at least once. Meanwhile, very few reptile and insect species and only one species of fungus have been evaluated even once. The favoritism of the cute and cuddly, while somewhat understandable, is unfortunate, and it means that the picture of biodiversity painted by Red List statistics is skewed. As such, the organizations relying on the Red List are relying on a skewed representation of global biodiversity. The IUCN is currently seeking to increase the number of species assessments in these underrepresented groups in the coming years.

-Amanda Hudson, Legal Intern

Biological Controls - Fair or Fowl?

A variety of approaches exist to deal with invasive species, and one of the most prominent methods has been to introduce biological controls, or biocontrol. Essentially, this method fights fire with fire by introducing another foreign species to take care of the foreign species that has invaded the local environment. Typically, for example, insects are introduced to control invasive plants. One of the major benefits of biocontrols is that, if effective, it can reduce or eliminate the need for chemical controls like pesticides or herbicides. Quarantine studies are conducted to see whether a potential biocontrol is suitable for the affected habitat, and to determine host specificity – that is, whether the biocontrol will affect only the invasive species and not become invasive itself. Host specificity can be one of the big benefits of biocontrol, in that organisms with specific diets can target invasive species more precisely than chemicals, which often affect an array of plants, animals and qualities within in an ecosystem. One of the major drawbacks to biocontrol, however, is that it is not very reversible. Whereas chemical applications can cease when environmental damage is detected, it’s difficult if not impossible to eradicate a biocontrol species once it has established itself as an invader. Furthermore, host specificity is not an absolute requirement of biocontrol species introduction, and many biocontrol proponents urge the introduction of non-host-specific agents. Serious problems may then arise when species switch hosts, start attacking native plants, or other biocontrol agents.

Biocontrol is widely used, but has had a mixed track record, in some instances proving safe and hugely effective, and in others becoming major boondoggles. An example of a great biocontrol success can be found in the handling of alligatorweed, which by the 1950s had become a huge problem here in Jacksonville, infesting local waterways and wetlands. After various studies, alligatatorweed flea beetles and two other insects were released into affected areas and it worked so well that within three years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completely stopped herbicide application to control the weed.

Sometimes biocontrol agents turn out to be thoroughly mediocre. For instance, the aquatic plant hydrilla remains problematic throughout Florida and no biocontrol efforts have yet proven very effective. Several host-specific insects were identified and introduced to control hydrilla, but each has its drawbacks and have not been up to the task of taking down the weed, which in ideal conditions can grow up to ten inches each day! Some places have been introducing grass carp fish to control hydrilla populations. The grass carp eat even faster than hydrilla can spread, so it has no problem eliminating outbreaks – however, these fish do not feed only on the weed and thus they are prime candidates for becoming invasive, nuisance species themselves! As such, grass carp stocking requires a permit in Florida and generally is only done in smaller lakes and ponds.

On the other side of the coin, the Bufo toad (or Cane toad) is a very good example - or rather, very bad - of biocontrol gone wrong in Florida. Native to Central America, this toad was intentionally introduced to Hawaii, Florida, Australia, and other tropical locations in order to control sugar cane beetles and other pesky insects interfering with sugar production. In Australia, the introduction was a major mistake as it was completely ineffective in combating their beetle problem, and merely became a problem itself. The Bufo has also become a major pest in South Florida, where it has become extremely well-established, since it breeds year-round, will eat almost anything, and thrives in the moist landscape. Unfortunately, the Bufo’s skin secretes a highly toxic fluid that has killed many native animals and domestic pets that attempt to eat the toad, and can also cause skin and eye irritation in humans. Today, the Bufo is well-known and thoroughly hated by South Floridians, and can serve as a hard lesson of the importance of caution in introducing biocontrol agents.

-Amanda Hudson, Legal Intern