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Making Waves: Episode 58 (August 19, 2010)

…A new study about invasive lionfish in the Atlantic;
…Hypoxic ‘dead zone’ news for the Gulf of Mexico;
…And the biggest marine conservation area in the nation is designated a UN World Heritage Site.

Those stories are coming up today. It’s Thursday, August 19th, and you’re listening to Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

Lionfish news is first up today. Lionfish are native to the western and central Pacific Ocean, but they’re now established in waters from North Carolina to South America.

How’d they get there? The best guess is that since they are a popular aquarium fish that some were probably released in Florida waters in the mid-1980s.

Since then, the species has spread at an alarming rate. And this is a big problem because this fish is a hungry predator – and it could devastate reef ecosystems in the Atlantic as it outcompetes native fish for food and territory.

So how do we help curb the rapid growth of this invasive species? Well, a recent study suggests that about 27 percent of mature lionfish will have to be removed monthly for one year to reduce its population growth rate to zero.

That’s a lot of lionfish. The good news?  It turns out that lionfish are tasty. So one way to help reduce the population is to get people to catch the fish to get them out of the water and onto dinner plates. In fact, NOAA scientists say that developing a market for lionfish may be one of the only ways to substantially reduce their numbers.

To help out in this effort, NOAA kicked off an “Eat Lionfish” campaign earlier this year to help bring together fishing communities, wholesalers, and chefs to broaden U.S. consumers’ awareness that lionfish are good to eat.

So is eating invasive lionfish the answer to the problem? The short answer is that creating a market for lionfish will help, but there are no quick and easy solutions.

There are some areas off the southeast U.S. coast, for example, where lionfish are found in such expansive areas that it may not be possible to catch enough of the fish to control the spread.

Added to this, there’s still a lot more to learn about the problem. The authors of the study warn that much more work is needed to better understand the ecological effects of lionfish in different areas, to track the population, and to develop other control strategies. But now we have a target to know how many we have to catch to keep the population growth at zero.

The study was a collaborative effort between scientists from NOAA and North Carolina State University. It can be found in the June 2010 issue of Biological Invasions. And you can learn more about the invasive lionfish problem on our website. We’ll have links for you in the podcast show notes at 

(Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone)
While all eyes have recently been on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, there’s another yearly problem that impacts the Gulf that’s know as the dead zone.

NOAA-supported scientists have found this year's Gulf of Mexico dead zone to be the fifth largest on record at 7,722 square miles. That’s an area the size of New Jersey, and it’s near the upper limit of their projections. This year, tropical storm activity in the Gulf  has  caused the zone to be a patchwork rather than a continuous band.

What’s a dead zone? Well, the scientific name is hypoxic zone. It’s an area of water that’s depleted of oxygen, and that’s fueled by nutrient runoff from farming, wastewater,   and other human activities in the Mississippi River watershed. This runoff of nutrients stimulates an overgrowth of algae. As this vast amount of algae sinks and decomposes, it consumes most of the life-giving oxygen supply in the bottom layers of water along portions of the Gulf. These dead zones occur in coastal areas around the nation and in our Great Lakes. In the Gulf of Mexico, the dead zone is of particular concern because it threatens valuable commercial and recreational fisheries that generate about $2.8 billion annually.

This year’s dead zone in the Gulf is nearly double that of 2009s, which was smaller than average. A series of storms and high wind and wave conditions in the shallower waters to the west of the Atchafalaya River delta mixed oxygen into the traditional dead zone area before last year’s survey cruise. Last year’s dead zone measured approximately 3,000 square miles.

The ship-based research that measured this year’s dead zone was led by the director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. The survey of Gulf waters extended from the Mississippi River delta west to Galveston Bay.

In the western portion of the dead zone scientists found the largest area of low oxygen off the upper Texas coast since surveys began in 1985.

In the eastern portion of the dead zone, scientists on the cruise found that the hypoxic area overlaps with the region impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but they concluded that it’s unlikely that the spill had a significant impact on the size of the zone.

The models used to forecast the area of the dead zone allow scientists to better understand the underlying causes of this phenomenon -- the main goal of the forecast is to provide accurate data to aid in decisions about how to manage the waters of the Gulf. The models do not currently look at short-term variability due to weather patterns, or the potential effects of the oil spill. This summer’s dead zone may have been even larger, but researchers were unable to fully document the western extent of the zone due to time constraints.

We’ll have a link to a full report on the 2010 Gulf of Mexico dead zone in our show notes.

(Papahānaumokuākea Designated as UNESCO World Heritage Site)

And finally today, the largest conservation area in the U.S. with the longest name is now a World Heritage site.

On July 30, the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO -- the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization -- voted to add Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument to its list of special, significant places around the world.

Let’s say it together now: Papahānaumokuākea.

This monument is now one of only 26 mixed (natural and cultural) World Heritage Sites on the globe. And it’s now the first and only mixed World Heritage Site in the nation.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is larger than all of America’s national parks combined. This vast region preserves many of Hawaii’s Northwestern Islands and is made up of nearly 140,000 square miles of reefs, atolls, shallow waters, and deep seas.
The monument contains a wide variety of critically important habitats that harbor over 7,000 marine species, several of which are only found in this region. It is also home to many rare and endangered species like the green sea turtle and the Hawaiian monk seal.
The near pristine remote reefs, islands, and waters of the monument provide refuge and habitat for a wide array of threatened and endangered species. It’s one of the last predator-dominated coral reef ecosystems on the planet, and the region provides critical nesting and foraging grounds for 14 million seabirds making it the largest tropical seabird rookery in the world.

World Heritage designation does not change the Monument’s cooperative federal-state management mission, plan or structure. And it doesn’t impose, change or add regulations or restrictions. According to Monument staff, the management philosophy and regulations have always been designed to “bring the place to the people” through education, virtual exposure, and extremely limited visitation. While World Heritage designation has meant increased tourism at other World Heritage sites, for Papahānaumokuākea, the situation is quite different. All human access and activity will remain by permit only, with visitation by the public restricted to Midway Atoll under strict carrying-capacity guidelines.

You can learn more about the monument at
The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is one of fourteen marine protected areas that form NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary system. The goal of this system is to conserve, protect, and enhance the biodiversity, ecological integrity, and cultural legacy of marine areas totaling 150,000 square miles.

And that’s all for this week. If you have any questions about this week’s podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean -- or if you have an ocean fact you’d like answered -- send us a note at And be sure to visit us online. We’re at

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This is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.