Today began with a lecture discussing legal efforts to conserve biodiversity at the level of the species, particularly the (in)effectiveness of focusing protection efforts at individual components of ecosystems instead of ecosystems as wholes. We also explored the current state of "species theory", including growing evidence that no single coherent species concept can describe taxa from all parts of the tree of life, and the growing recognition among biologists that "species" may not exist. Finally, we discussed what implications the existential crisis surrounding "species" may have on such laws as the U.S. Endangered Species Act ("ESA") and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna ("CITES"). For example, if species turn out to lack objective scientific reality, then to what do the ESA and CITES pertain? The demise of species as units of biodiversity lends additional support to refocusing conservation from taxonomy to geography.
After lecture, Donna Nemeth, a professor of fish biology at the University of the Virgin Islands, presented some of her research on freshwater animals she has discovered in the "guts" (seasonally wet waterways) that stripe the islands. Then, Professor Nemeth and a visiting shark researcher (and retired pathologist), Ben Victor, led the class up a gut to sample the freshwater fish (two native and two introduced taxa) and shrimp (five native taxa) found in permanent pools at a variety of elevations and subject to various levels of pollution and human disturbance. The class concluded its visit to the gut by discussing how best to legally protect the islands' guts from human encroachment, development, and pollution, as well as how to legally regulate runoff from guts so as to minimize damage to coral reefs from gut effluent.
In the afternoon, the class visited Renata Platenberg, an officer with the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources ("DPNR"), whose responsibilities include management and protection of the islands' animals. She shared her insights into the process of biodiversity policy- and lawmaking on both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. Her recent interests have included protection of local endangered species, such as the highly charismatic Virgin Islands Tree Boa and the Leatherback, Hawksbill, and Green Seaturtles. She concluded by pointing my students to some very useful sources of information regarding Virgin Islands biodiversity law; hard to believe as it may be, one of the greatest challenges of biodiversity law on these islands is locating current and accurate Territorial statutes and regulations, and then determining their significance. One of the eventual fruits of the Biodiversity Law class will be to compile, interpret, and summarize all of the biodiversity law that applies to the Virgin Islands.
One unfortunate lesson my class learned today was the importance of biodiversity law to most elected politicians: our appointment at the Legislature was canceled without explanation. So, although they differ markedly from each other in climate, culture, history, and many other respects, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the mainland United States do converge in the political importance they seem to place upon biodiversity issues.