NEW YORK — Among the most recent invaders of the United States to be exterminated that I learned about is the red lionfish. Before that, the Asian carp got all the attention. About the time the carp scare was quieting down the yellow jacket — yes, the wasp — came forward as a heinous invader to be destroyed.
I thought of these animals when I read T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “When the Killing’s Done.” The novel fictionalizes the consequences of the National Park Service (NPS) decision to exterminate two invasive species on the Channel Islands of California: the black rats and feral pigs.
Actually, the lionfish as an invasive species to be destroyed may not be that new a topic. I first read about it in The Wall Street Journal (“The Lionfish Creates an Uproar, Bringing Out the Hunters,” Nov. 15). I see now that NPR had talked about the fish as a marine menace a year earlier, and lionfish hunting “derbies” had started in 2008.
How is the lionfish an “invader?” Because it’s native to the warm waters of the Indo-Pacific seas. But its colorful and fanciful body — the name comes from the mane-like display of its fins — turned it into a popular aquarium item in this country. During Hurricane Andrew (1992) a Florida aquarium tank broke and some fish escaped into the Atlantic Ocean. A dozen years later it was found to have multiplied in the seas around Florida.
How can a sedate, coast-hugging fish that doesn’t grow larger than 40 cm, according to National Geographic, and doesn’t form schools as, say, the bluefish does, prompt a call for “extermination?” Because it is “voracious” as it “hoovers up nearly everything in its path,” as the WSJ’s video version puts it. But Americans do not call for the extermination of the pelagic bluefish, which grow to be 80 cm and are so voracious as to devour their own children and kin as they move in great schools at high speed, do they?
The Asian carp dominated U.S. talk of “invasive” species for months until a Chinese company offered to buy all the catch. The fish, it was said, threatened to destroy the Great Lakes.
That outcome, at least for now, was a happy one for me. As I read news articles on the potentially dire consequences of an inability to kill off Asian carp, I kept wondering: Why not simply catch and eat them? They are big and delicious. Why are Americans so choosey about the kinds of fish they think fit to eat?
With the lionfish, by contrast, the authorities began with the fact that it is edible. Even though the slogan that the superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary devised, “Kill it! Grill it!,” is an American-style overkill, I have fondly remembered that a family member of this species, also called the scorpion fish, was prized on a small Nagasaki island where I grew up. Its Japanese relative is called okoze, the name coming from a word meaning “sharp pain.” The fish has poisonous spines.
So, the lionfish and the Asian carp at least were found to have a saving grace: edibility. No such luck with the yellow jacket. As its Latin name Vespula pensylvanica suggests, it is not an invader from Asia, but from Pennsylvania, and the place where the insect is targeted for annihilation is Hawaii. It obviously has no ameliorating quality.
It was, in any case, in disbelief that I watched on one of PBS’ Nature programs a couple of people in chemical warfare garb running around in a grassy, foliage-covered land to kill masses of yellow jackets (each colony these insects build can house 5,000 workers). The program was “Kilauea: Mountain of Fire: Hawaii’s Vulnerable Biodiversity,” and it mostly had to do with the impressive volcanic activity, the forces that gave birth to the island cluster that is Hawaii. But what stuck in my mind was the destruction of the insect.
I have long been suspicious of a set of people, whatever expertise theirs may be, deciding a particular species harms humans or the environment and calling for its extermination or “control.” With “invasive species,” one doesn’t need a special insight to see that all kinds of fauna or flora have been moving from place to place since time immemorial, with human beings greatly aiding the process since they started walking on this planet.
And nonnative species in time become native. In “When the Killing’s Done,” T. C. Boyle sets up a scene where NPS environmental scientist Alma Takesue (yes, her father was a Japanese American) tries to educate people on the need to kill off the black rats on Anacapa with poison to protect the Xantus’ murrelets and other species. That’s when the animal protection activist Dave LaJoy sardonically asks:
“Those rats have been there for a hundred and fifty years!” The black rats are thought to have arrived on the island from a shipwreck in the mid-19th century. The deer mice, on the other hand, are regarded as indigenous to the island. “What’s your baseline? A hundred years ago? A thousand? Ten thousand?”
Not that Boyle takes sides. He does give the irascible, unbending LaJoy a fictional divine punishment, as it were. Still, he explains well the absurd complications that arise when you try to tamper with the already tampered environment.
In fact, on the online site for “Kilauea: Mountain of Fire,” PBS flatly identifies the main destroyer of the “delicate balance” of the most biologically diverse Hawaii islands: “human colonization.” Because of it, intentional and unintentional introduction of new species to Hawaii now occurs “at a rate that is 2 million times more rapid than the natural rate.”
Is there any hope or remedy? PBS is neutral or at least seems to counsel against the cry of “Exterminate all the brutes!”
“Every day, as fresh lava spills into the ocean, new land is formed — land that will someday be new habitat for Hawaiian plants and animals, both native and invasive,” the PBS site says. “Just as the geography of Hawaii is always changing, so is the shape of life on these islands.”
Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.