Ecocentric

Happy National Invasive Species Week!

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Ben Lowy for TIME

More frequent readers of this blog know that I’m obsessed with two things: Philadelphia sports and Asian carp. I even see some similarities between the two—Phillies fans, like Asian carp, are seen by some as an invading horde infiltrating territory that doesn’t belong to them. (Like the Asian carp, the fans are generally peaceful but will thrash about violently if they’re startled or, more likely, drunk.) That’s why I wish I were in one of two places this week: down in the Florida town of Clearwater, where the Phillies are beginning their Grapefruit League slate, or in Washington for National Invasive Species Awareness Week.

 

Yes, there is an entire week devoted to invasive species like the Asian carp, the longhorn beetle and the quagga mussel. Why not—invasive species cost the county an estimated $120 billion a year, and billions more are spent every year by various branches of government to fight off those invaders. Much of the focus will indeed be going toward the Asian carp, and the multi-million dollar effort underway to keep those fish out of the Great Lakes, where they could eat other species into oblivion and brain the occasional waterskier on Lake Michigan. John Goss, the White House’s Asian carp czar—yes, this is an actual position—gave the keynote today, though hopefully he’ll be able to do something about the fact the Obama budget has cut $125 million from the Great Lakes ecological restoration program.

Of course, once an invasive species is close to establishing itself like the Asian carp, the battle may already be lost. That was the message from environmental and conservation groups speaking before the conference, who emphasized the need to tighten the country’s porous customs barriers to keep would-be invaders at bay:

Asian carp were allowed into this country under a law governing animal imports that was passed in 1900, and which has remained unchanged, despite a drastically different global trade reality. As two species of Asian carp, the bighead and silver carp, knock at the door of the Great Lakes, conservation and fishing groups are calling on federal officials to finally update import screening laws before the next invader gets here.

The 111-year-old Lacey Act prohibits the transport of illegal wildlife and plants, but just 40 animal groups have been prohibited under the legislation, and usually only after they’ve already escaped and begun to establish themselves. The Maginot Line provided better security from invaders, and that needs to change:

By modernizing the Lacey Act, the U.S. Congress can empower the FWS [Fish and Wildlife Service] to first assess the potential risks associated with a species proposed for import before deciding whether to allow or prohibit its trade into the United States.

“Right now, the next species that might terrorize the Great Lakes could be on its way to the U.S.,” said Max Muller, Program Director at Environment Illinois. “We need Congress to plug the gaping loophole that allows invasive species to be imported into the country, and leaves states like Illinois holding the bag.”

In a more globalized world—better yet, a more telecoupled one—the threat of invasive species will only worsen, as trade moves species from one corner of the globe to another. Zebra mussels, which have proved incredibly annoying and expensive to the Great Lakes, established themselves after a European container ship dumped its mussel-contaminated ballast water into Lake Erie. The red lionfish, which is wrecking havoc in the Caribbean, was likely introduced by an unwary aquarium owner. In Florida, careless owners released pet Burmese pythons into the Everglades—now Florida wildlife officials actually have to hunt the snakes down.

As we keep disrupting the planet’s ecology through development and climate change, that will give more invasive species a chance to gain a foothold in American soil. The good news? For every dangerous Asian carp or red fire ant, far more would-be invaders either fail to establish themselves, or end up mostly harmless, according to a new study in the journal Ecology Letters. Sometimes those invasives end up benefiting the local environment—including honeybees, which were introduced to North America in the 16th century. And there’s the ultimate invasive species, for better or for worse: us.

More from TIME on Asian carp:

Lake Invaders

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