Guest Article #3

Invasive Alien Species Responses on Islands - To Conserve Biodiversity, Adapt to Climate Change and Support Livelihoods

Imagine you are standing on a beach on a Pacific island, waves lapping the shore. Everything exactly as one would imagine. Except that there is something missing. I could neither see nor hear any birds. The birds have gone.

This happened only two months ago, standing on one of the beaches of the U.S. territory of Guam. But this could be equally true of any island near it or further afield. I later discovered that in the past 30 years, 10 of 12 native species have become extinct, and the two species remaining are critically endangered. Guam's kids are growing up with a whole part of their natural history missing, and this has been caused by an invasive alien species, the infamous brown treesnake (boiga irregularus).

“So what?” you may say, “its just a few birds.” If only that were true. But this is not a problem confined to just one island or to one species; it is a problem for all islands and a problem between islands.  The problem is invasive alien species and their devastating impact on biodiversity and livelihoods.

The problem is not just caused by species like the brown treesnake. In the Caribbean it's the Lionfish, on many islands it's weeds (and there is a long list of those), insects , such as the infamous red imported fire ant, or diseases such as Citrus canker that can wipe out entire crops. But it's never just one species – usually it's a laundry list of invasive plant, animal and pathogen species that an island is faced with. The list is long and ever growing, and the impacts are wide reaching and often not yet realized or talked about.

Invasive alien species and their impact on islands are highlighted in many documents, global, regional and national strategies and plans, but globally there is not a concerted effort to deal with this scourge.  Yet in the short term the impacts of invasive alien species are often devastating to island economies and island people, and climate change is likely in most cases to make the menace much worse. In fact, doing something about invasive species, especially on islands, is also one of our weapons in adapting to climate change, increasing food security and conserving biodiversity.

In terms of addressing the issue, developing and strengthening regional and local collaboration to manage invasive alien species within and across jurisdictions is critical. The Pacific islands region has been a particular leader in efforts including but not limited to the Pacific Invasives Partnership and the recent endorsement by Micronesian Chief Executives of the development of a Micronesia Biosecurity Plan, which will help safeguard the northern Pacific once it is implemented and serve as a template for other island regions to follow. Partners and countries in the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean are sharing lessons and experiences on a diversity of successful approaches to invasive alien species prevention, control and eradication. Our response in the Global Island Partnership is to launch a working group focused on catalyzing leadership and support for invasive alien species issues, to be chaired by a member of the GLISPA Steering Committee – Island Conservation.

I was reminded of why addressing invasive alien species issues and other critical island issues are important a few weeks ago in Montreal during a meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity's Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice, when parties reviewing the Programme of Work on Island Biodiversity adopted a clear set of recommendations which prioritized dealing with both climate change and invasive alien species as two critical drivers of biodiversity loss on islands. A rousing speech by Ambassador Ronald Jumeau of Seychelles at the opening of the session on Island Biodiversity was illustrative – he said that not only is our precious and often unique biodiversity disappearing but it is doing so much more alarmingly than anywhere else. Extinction rates for birds, for example, are a whopping 187 times higher on islands and for mammals 177 times higher than on continents. He further identified that this loss is increasingly affecting our options for sustainable development, including poverty eradication, whittling away at our resilience to climate change, and taxing our dependence on ecosystem services.

We know that the challenges facing island biodiversity, and indeed the very sustainability of islands, are massive and increasing. As the people who call islands home, islanders have committed themselves to the solutions, often in ways that belie their size. Their success at the recent Montreal meeting, particularly in terms of what they have implemented, attests to this.

As we prepare for Rio+20 our partnership's perspective is to focus on investment in natural capital and to highlight island leaders, to build on the kinds of leadership that offer a beacon for all of us and to identify what more we must do. Two of the co-chairs of GLISPA, President Toribiong of Palau and President Michel of the Seychelles, will host a high-level commitment event at Rio to bring some of these leaders together.

If we want our children and, by 2050, their children's children, to maintain island lives that are defined by richness and diversity and the ability to provide food, shelter, water and our cultural needs, and not by what is missing, we must act now. Islands have long been called the canaries in the coal mine of the planet – the canary is in trouble.