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This supposedly benign little plant—that no one thought could survive the waters of the Mediterranean—has now become a pernicious force. Caulerpa taxifolia now covers 10,000 acres of the coasts of France, Spain, Italy, and Croatia, and has devastated the Mediterranean ecosystem. And it continues to grow, unstoppable and toxic. When Alexandre Meinesz, a professor of biology at the University of Nice, discovered a square-yard patch of it in 1984, he warned biologists and oceanographers of the potential species invasion. His calls went unheeded. At that point, one person could have pulled the small patch out and ended the problem. Now, however, the plant has defeated the French Navy, thwarted scientific efforts to halt its rampage, and continues its destructive journey into the Adriatic Sea.
Killer Algae is the biological and political horror story of this invasion. For despite Meinesz's pleas to scientists and the French government, no agency was willing to take responsibility for the seaweed, and while the buck was passed, the killer algae grew. And through it all, the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco sought to exculpate itself. In short, Killer Algae—part detective story and part bureaucratic object lesson—is a classic case of a devastating ecological invasion and how not to deal with it.
"[U]tterly fascinating, not only because of the ecological battles [Meinesz] describes but also because of the wondrous natural phenomena involved."—Richard Bernstein, New York Times
"Akin to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Killer Algae shows the courage of a voice in the wilderness."—Choice
"A textbook case of how not to manage an environmental disaster."—Kirkus Reviews
"Meinesz's story is a frightening one, reading more like a science fiction thriller than a scientific account."—Publishers Weekly
This is how it arrived at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco, where it was
cultivated beginning in 1982. Two years later, the alga was discovered in
nature, under the windows of this celebrated building. At that time, the
beautiful stranger occupied only a square meter of Mediterranean bottom.
Six years later, the alga was noted on the French coast five kilometers
from Monaco; its detrimental impact on coastal ecosystems was deplored.
The alga grows everywhere, from the surface to the lower limits of
underwater vegetation. It grows as well in front of capes swept by storms
and currents as on the soft bottoms of sheltered bays, on the polluted mud
of harbors as onstretches of bottom with a diverse flora and fauna.
Highly toxic, it barely interests herbivores; they have not hindered its
spread. It is thus growing unrestrained, covering and then eliminating
many plant and animal species. A new equilibrium is reached when the alga
forms a dense, uniform carpet that persists from year to year.
After having selected it for aquaria from among numerous imported algal
species, after having dumped it into the sea, humans fostered its
dissemination in nature. Yacht anchors and fishing gear have carried it
from anchorage to anchorage and from harbor to harbor, sometimes over
great distances. The Italian and Spanish coasts were reached by 1992, that
of Croatia by 1995. By late 1997, ninety-nine invaded sites totaling more
than 4,600 hectares have been inventoried.
No one has ever been killed by Caulerpa taxifolia, known as the "killer
alga." For, contrary to what its media nickname might suggest, this
prolific alga is primarily an ecological threat. All relevant research
indicates an unlimited spread. Its control is more difficult every year,
and its eradication, envisaged at the beginning of the invasion, can now
be classed only as a utopian dream. The introduction of this dangerous
alga therefore threatens to initiate a profound disruption of the coastal
Mediterranean environment. The story of the "killer alga" has,
unfortunately, just begun.
How did we reach this point? When the first scientific publications
confirmed the threat, the alga was, contrary to any reasonable
expectation, defended by other scientists who tried to argue that its
appearance was a natural event. This was the beginning of a long,
fantastic polemic. The affair is even stranger because the place where the
alga was introduced to the Mediterranean is truly incongruous-the
principality of Monaco, a state with one of the highest standards of
living. This is far from the Polish forests devastated by acid rain, far
from the Aral Sea dried up by diverting water, far from the third world
where overpopulation engenders overexploitation of natural resources. More
remarkably, the first signs of the invasion were observed just in front of
a palace of the sea, a landmark of marine biology: the Oceanographic
Museum of Monaco. This prestigious palace, built between 1899 and 1910 by
Prince Albert I of Monaco (a highly erudite and competent oceanographer),
was directed from 1957 through 1988 by Commander Jacques-Yves Cousteau, a
person emblematic of the sea.
The polemic has been heated, fed by the defense of many different
interests. It was able to break out because key scientific and government
authorities were lax and because of disdain for a problem that does not
directly threaten human health. An abundance of communications on this
affair masks inadequate knowledge and a failure of government experts. The
object of byzantine debates between scientists, government experts, public
figures, and the media, this sterile controversy slowed the recognition of
the threat. The threat was long underestimated while the time during which
it might have been successfully contained dribbled away. The alga grew
inexorably, and it still grows, disturbing the marine environment ...
and the human intellect.
A university researcher who specializes in Caulerpa, and a diver devoted
to defending marine life, I was the first to sound the alarm in 1989. An
actor in or observer of all the intricacies of this affair, I encountered
deplorable actions in the face of a concrete threat to biodiversity, at a
propitious time in countries in which everything could have been
undertaken to allow a rational and rapid mastery of the situation. Having
taken it upon myself to alert the authorities and then the media about the
imminent threats, I am undertaking in this book to describe the years of
battle that I have subsequently lived. This fact explains the personal
tone of this report.
Of course, recalling facts and activities will arouse in the reader some
remorse and much revulsion and indignation. But this first history of the
killer alga is much more than the simple, lively chronicle of a trivial
ecological accident. It is also an analysis of the social and political
mechanisms that raised obstacles to the successful management of a
potentially grave environmental threat. The passions that were unleashed,
often extremely heated, were the result of a failure of our institutions
to function properly. This account can also be read as an example of the
conflicts in scientific and administrative hierarchies with respect to the
"affairs" that have shaken up our industrialized countries at the end of
this century and in which scientists very quickly played the role of
sentinel; they detected the threat and gave the alarm. But many obstacles
delayed the decisions that would have to have been made to avoid the
dreadful sequels that we now observe. Though the alga is not a killer, the
damage caused to our environment is already manifest, and the ecological
consequences for the fauna and flora-and finally for humans who exploit
them-can be very grave. The years of inaction produce and will continue
to produce, in every case, an enormous cost for society.
The first six chapters of this book present, with details and references,
the chronology of the events and their socio-political context, from the
introduction of the alga at Monaco through the delayed recognition of its
harmful nature. The seventh and last chapter reflects on the three causes
underlying all the incoherence and negligence that characterized this
affair: scorn for biodiversity at the decision-making level, the decline
of the sciences of nature, and the evolution of the ways in which
scientific information is communicated. The seventh chapter also locates
the invasion of Caulerpa taxifolia amidst the swelling tide of exotic
species invading terrestrial, freshwater, and marine habitats all over the
earth, a phenomenon that now ranks second among global threats to
As beautiful as a flower, Caulerpa taxifolia still poses many scientific
questions. It has aroused passions in people with diverse interests. Some
actors in the black tale of this "natural history" displayed an
incomprehensible attitude, lamentable for people of their rank, given the
responsibility that society has given them. The alga has thus become the
sort of evil flower that Baudelaire must have glimpsed when he wrote his
Both of you are discreet, dim, shadow-ridden:
Man, none has plumbed your soul's abyss; and, sea,
No one has pierced your wealth's dark mystery,
So jealous, you, to keep your treasures hidden!
* * *
A winter dive, 1992
February. The water was at its coldest, 12°C at the surface, 13°C
underwater. It always takes a little courage to enter the gray sea,
whipped by surf, with the rays of the sun too oblique to penetrate deeply.
One first feels the slap of freezing water in the face and then the
torture of its infiltration beneath the neoprene dive suit. Then one
recovers while shaking a bit and is suddenly plunged into another world. I
will never tire of the everyday features of life underwater: the behavior
of a fleeing fish, the winter colors of multicolored algae, the mysterious
clicks of molluscs, fishes, and crustaceans glimpsed through the
turbulence of the two lines of bubbles emanating from the regulator.
The winter storms tear up or shred anything fragile between the surface
and five meters; the Caulerpa "sink." The first fronds are shrivelled,
broken, sparse. But at ten meters all seems calmer; a green carpet, thick
and strong, covers rocks and sand. The alga is beautiful, it undulates
under the attenuated influence of the swells. But I see too much of it, I
have already seen too much of it. I see it every time I dive in this spot.
I know that lower, to the right, to the left, it is the same. I know that
I can swim over the Caulerpa prairies until I exhaust my air supply. It is
everywhere. In three months, it will reawaken, proliferate, stretch out to
cover and suffocate. I am enraged. Then I gather some, I shove it under
the mask strap, under the weight belt, under the lifejacket, I sew a
collar of it, I adorn myself with it, I am quickly encircled with garlands
of Polynesian ferns! I have them all over, I am completely green.
My teammate imitates me. We resemble the French cartoon characters Dupond
and Dupont who, in Tintin comic books, have a green beard and green hair
that never stop growing. Mockery in the face of our impotence against this
supernatural prairie, so beautiful, so gentle, but also so deceitful, so
cruel for the other algal prairies, for coastal underwater life of the
Mediterranean. No, we are not stricken by dive narcosis, the terrible
affliction that each year maddens and kills many divers; it is simply a
collective letting off of steam on the subject that haunts our dreams. We
bathe ourselves in Caulerpa, we roll around in it. We laugh, it is good
It is time to surface, to go through the stages of decompression, to
return to reality. The green monsters rise from the bottom, pick off
shreds of green flesh that sink in the current. Surface! It is now
necessary to confront other hydras, other evils.
Excerpted from Killer Algae
by Alexandre Meinesz
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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