Saturday, January 13, 2007

Islands In The Legal Stream (Day 3)

Today the morning lecture covered the different branches of the tree of life, ecosystem dynamics, metapopulations, extinction, and the implications of each of these biological topics for existing biodiversity law and the need for new law to fill current gaps in legal coverage. One topic we covered in detail was the role that biological science (1) actually plays in both lawmaking and legal enforcement and (2) should play in order to ensure optimal management and conservation of biodiversity.

After lecture, we visited a local attorney who has been very active - and, remarkably, successful - in using the Endangered Species Act to protect local endangered species. One of my students summarized what he learned from this attorney as follows:

I think that [the attorney]let us know that there is a lot more to practicing law in the Virgin Islands than knowing your civil procedure. By that I mean there are a lot of inner workings and behind the scenes activities that go on in the Virgin Islands - more so than in other places. [The attorney] provided us with compelling examples of how good biodiversity law can be inspired by vastly different motives; these run the gamut from those of traditional environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club or Defenders of Wildlife, to property owners merely concerned about protecting their own properties from encroaching development. It has now become clearer to me that biodiversity law depends as much on skilled legal advocacy as it does on good science.

After lunch, the class headed down to Botany Bay again. On this visit we all snorkled out to the coral reef at an as yet undisturbed spot named Mermaid's Chair to survey the diversity of fish, coral, and other invertebrates, and to assess the health of the coral reef community. We observed approximately thirty distinct species of reef fish, ranging in length from less than one centimetre to more than a metre; these included Angel Fish, Butterflyfish, Grunts, Ocean Surgeonfish, Damselfish, Blue Chromis, Parrotfish, Needlefish, Wrasses, Trumpetfish, Goatfish, Yellow Jack, Trunkfish, and Barracuda. We also noticed about fifteen species of coral, including, most spectacularly, Federally-listed Elkhorn Coral, large braincorals, and numerous Pan's Pipe corals. This reef survey prompted another one of my students to observe that

Coming from the Midwest, it is striking to see how delicate the coral reef and coastal ecosystems of the tropics are. Observing how the minor natural changes effect the coral shows how human interference and actions can have a major impact. The lesson for biodiversity law is the necessity to create enforcement mechanisms that can actually be implemented to protect these fragile ecosystems successfully. The Virgin Islands Legislature needs to work with developers, citizens, environmental groups, and biologists to implement realistic and effective enforcement practices for conservation to work.

Tomorrow, we will be back down at Botany Bay to examine the effects development there is having on both the forested slopes and the offshore coral reefs.


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