This piece was originally posted on YouthVoices.com. I was interviewed for a series called "Millennials Doing Cool Sh*t", and had a blast talking with Youth Voices' co-founder Tom Guthrie!
Erin Spencer is a recent graduate of the College of William & Mary in Virginia with a BS in Ecology and Marine Science. She is interested in using media to bridge the gap between the marine science community and the general public and increase the accessibility of scientific research, particularly when it comes to the threats of invasive species. Her work with the Lionfish Project (www.thelionfishproject.com) has been featured in Lady Diver Magazine, Bare Essentials Magazine, W&M Ideation, as well as the National Geographic NewsWatch Blog and NG Weekend. She is currently based in Baltimore and is a Communications Fellow at Global Island Partnership. To see more of her work, please visitwww.erin-spencer.4ormat.com.
Tom: Tell us about the Lionfish Project. Why focus on that species?
The goal of The Lionfish Project is to share the stories of locals in the Florida Keys who are taking the invasive lionfish problem into their own hands. Lionfish are originally from the Indo-Pacific region and were introduced off the coast of South Florida in the mid-1980s. Since then they have spread throughout the Western Atlantic, Gulf, and Caribbean, and are wreaking havoc on native fish species populations. They are essentially the Hoover vacuums of the sea: they will eat anything that fits in their mouths. One study in the Bahamas found that from 2008-2010, prey fish densities on study sites decreased an average of 65% due to lionfish predations. Some sites had as much as a 95% decrease. Plus, they are breeding machines. One lionfish can reproduce up to every four days, resulting in over two million eggs over the course of one year.
Locals throughout the invaded range are taking action. I chose to focus on how divemasters, researchers, lobstermen, and chefs in the Florida Keys are investing time and resources into removing lionfish from their local reef ecosystems. Invasive species are a problem in every corner of the globe, and I hope that by sharing stories of local control, I can inspire others to take action in their own communities.
Tom: Why are you focusing on community responses to invasive species rather than exploring more of a top-down approach?
Local invasive species eradication projects are three times more likely to succeed than regional projects and eight times more likely to succeed than national eradication. Plus, locals have a greater social and economic stake in the health of the ecosystem and can more consistently apply control methods.
The best thing about community management is that it allows locals to have hands-on involvement in conservation. So much of environmental management is telling people what they can’t do: don’t camp here, don’t run your water so much, etc. Invasive species management gives people something they can do. Locals can have an active role in removing species that are causing harm and can see the results of their efforts. For example, on a recent trip to Curacao with the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), we removed 598 lionfish, which we determined would have consumed between 800,000 and 3 million local prey fish over the next year. Next time we dive those reefs, we would expect to see fewer lionfish and more native fish. Now those are results we can feel good about.
Tom: How’d you discover your interest in and talent for this kind of work?
My background is in marine science, but I’ve always been drawn to education and outreach. I’ve often struggled to combine my love for marine conservation with my love for writing and photography. My goal is to use storytelling to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the public.
When it comes to this project specifically, I saw my first lionfish off the coast of South Florida in 2009. I instantly was drawn to it- I was a new diver, and it was by far the most beautiful fish I had ever seen. I was shocked when I told the divemaster what I had seen and he told me how dangerous the fish was. After that, I was hooked (bad fish pun, sorry).
Tom: You’ve already gotten the National Geographic seal of approval and you’re officially a young explorer. What’s next for you?
Keep exploring! I’m currently working on two more research proposals that explore community based invasive species management in other locations around the world. I just returned from a trip to Curacao with REEF looking at changing lionfish densities on the island. I documented the trip with a blog, which can be accessed at www.reef.org/blogs/lad. I hope to join other lionfish research trips soon, but in the meantime I’m working on grant proposals and doing freelance science communication work for a few groups in New York and DC. Certainly enough to keep me busy!
Favorite marine species: Blue ringed octopus- an adorable but deadly cephalopod.
Your scientific/explorer role model: Sylvia Earle
Most beautiful place you’ve visited: On land? Split, Croatia. Under water? Curacao!
Tom Guthrie is Co-Founder and Executive Director of Youth Voices USA,