How marine World Heritage sites successfully manage invasive species

Wednesday, 16 June 2021
access_time 2 min read
Scuba diver on the hunt for the venomous invasive lionfish © Drew McArthur /

On 20 May 2021, invasive species experts and local management teams from the 50 UNESCO marine World Heritage sites met online to share lessons learned in the prevention and eradication of invasive species.

According to the 2020 IUCN World Heritage Outlook, 75 percent of the 50 UNESCO marine World Heritage sites are threatened by invasive species. When species are introduced to marine ecosystems they can quickly proliferate, often causing drastic habitat changes and reducing endemic biodiversity in the process. The effects occur both at the land and sea areas of World Heritage sites with increasing linkages between the two.

Given the high likelihood of impacts on sites’ Outstanding Universal Value and the communities who depend them, marine World Heritage sites increasingly invest in state-of-the art biosecurity protocols and launch ambitious eradication campaigns.   

In the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System World Heritage site (Belize), where lionfish have a ferocious appetite for juvenile fish and their venomous spines protect them from nearly all predators, dedicated action plans have been developed to control the population. Actions include market-based incentives such as lionfish dishes promoted as a delicacy at local restaurants or jewelry made out of lionfish spines.

In the Galápagos Islands World Heritage site (Ecuador), scientists have set up a sophisticated mechanism to monitor possible marine invasive species. The data derived informs management actions and cooperation across the wider region which hosts several UNESCO marine World Heritage sites. A dedicated team of divers and biosecurity agents checks the hull of incoming vessels for fouling, and ships are sent away if the hull is not clean. Similar hull inspection protocols and biofouling requirements are in place in Papahānaumokuākea (USA).

The biosecurity strategy applied in the French Austral Lands and Seas (France) is built around three pillars, including biosecurity, early detection and eradication. Areas near scientific stations at the remote islands are carefully monitored for possible introductions before they become too difficult or expensive to eradicate. Several introduced mammals have already been eradicated, and a major plan is currently in the making to simultaneously eradicate rats, cats, mice and rabbits which have caused erosion and habitat change.

The online meeting featured global invasive species specialists Professor James Russell from the University of Auckland and Dr. Nick Holmes of The Nature Conservancy along with managers and science teams across the 50 marine World Heritage sites. The online meeting was the fifth edition in a new digital exchange platform that was launched by UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre Marine Programme in April 2020. the online meetings provide an exclusive online platform where managers from the 50 marine World Heritage sites connect and share successes in tackling key conservation challenges.

Due to their status as the world’s flagship marine protected areas, marine World Heritage sites are uniquely positioned to drive change and innovation, set new global standards in conservation excellence, and serve as beacons of hope in a changing ocean. The online meetings are made possible thanks to the support of the French Biodiversity Agency and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. Participation is upon invitation only.