overrun bugged-out ports in U.S.
By Steve Nash
April 26, 2004
A little beyond earshot of the U.S. Capitol, in the leafy
suburbs of Maryland and Virginia, the chewing sounds may
soon be getting loud. As spring arrives, a metallic green
Asian beetle that feasts on ash trees may appear in the
landscape as it did briefly last fall.
The emerald ash borer probably first arrived at a Great
Lakes port in wooden packing material on Korean or Chinese
freighters a couple of years ago; since then, it has destroyed
6 million trees in Michigan and has also shown up in Ohio
A few weeks ago, ash trees near Wolf Trap in Virginia
that might have been infested were cut down in an effort
to halt any spread of the pest. There's a real possibility
the borer could do to Eastern ash trees what an Asian
blight did to chestnuts in the first half of the last
century -- wipe them out.
Global travel and trade have created a superhighway into
the United States for destructive foreign insects, plants,
animals and diseases that scientists call alien invasive
Yet we're pretending we don't have to pay much attention.
Countless other destructive alien species are on their
way here unless we enact immediate trade policy changes
and tougher cargo inspections.
The costs will be formidable, but the alternative --
more "free trade" in this biological pollution
-- is far worse.
The problem isn't new, but its scale and frequency are.
A 1999 Cornell University study estimated that the toll
from damage by species that aren't native to the United
States, and the costs of trying to control them, total
$137 billion every year.
Not only the usual enviro-Democrats are alarmed. Alaska
Republican Sen. Ted Stevens has asked Congress for $1.5
million to fight the mitten crab in his home state, while
Idaho Sen. Larry Craig is railing against noxious weeds
in the mountain states. Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio
has introduced legislation to fight waterborne invasives,
which he calls "aquatic terrorists," in the
Congressional and agency initiatives tackle one invader
after another, but the most effective and cost-efficient
fight can't be waged after the pests are already on the
loose. Instead, we need to block the pathways they use
to get in. Broadly speaking, there are two streams of
invasive species. One is imported plants and animals for
the exotic pet or food trades and micro-critters in dumped
These are the beneficiaries of laissez-faire regulations
that allow them legal entry. The other arrivals are "stowaway"
organisms that slip in inadvertently on or inside trade
goods or packing materials. Federal agencies such as the
Department of Agriculture and the Fish and Wildlife Service
maintain "dirty lists" that are supposed to
keep unwanted organisms out.
But among biologists, these lists are little more than
a dirty joke. You can still import countless kinds of
potentially destructive fish, killer plants and exotic
animals, such as the Asian swamp eel, a species that is
bedeviling Florida's waterways and could easily spread
all over the country. International trade agreements and
our trade-above-all politics practically guarantee more
of this lethargy.
They foster a species-at-a-time, innocent-until-proven-guilty
approach. If we mean to do a better job of keeping invasives
out, then the "clean list" approach adopted
during the '90s by Australia and New Zealand, which has
drastically cut the influx of biopollution, is a useful
The logic's easy to master: No non-native species can
legally enter those countries unless they have first been
carefully assessed -- at the cost of the importer -- for
their invasive potential. If one is proven to be unlikely
to misbehave, it goes on the "clean list." If
it's not on the list, it stays out.
The new National Invasive Species Council, an interagency
group created by executive order in the waning days of
the Clinton administration, is trying to orchestrate federal
efforts here, but with a minuscule staff and a budget
to match, it's overburdened. Indeed, science and management
resources across the country are strained. "The people
working on this issue, their dance cards are full,"
says Jamie Reaser, the NISC's former international affairs
The sobering chronology of the emerald ash borer makes
Reaser's case. The borer is a cargo stowaway, a pest no
one intended to import but no one's trying hard enough
Despite the dire warnings of the Michigan extension agent
who discovered the ash borer, it took officials more than
a year to develop a hazy sense of the problem. By the
time a moratorium on shipping ash trees across the country
was declared, the genie was out of the bottle, and the
borer had spread through Michigan and Ohio.
In any case, the moratorium wasn't serious. A Maryland
nursery took delivery of more than 100 infected Michigan
ash trees last August and sent them out to be planted
in Virginia and southern Maryland.
Similarly, inspection regimes at U.S. ports are of the
do-more-with-less school of self-delusion. Only 1 to 2
percent of the millions of cargo containers that enter
U.S. ports each year are given a look. Compare that with
a get-serious program: Dr. Carolyn Whyte, a biometrician
and risk assessor with New Zealand's border management
agency, says that in that country "each and every
container is now unpacked in the presence of a person
that has been trained and accredited."
A recent General Accounting Office report notes that
federal efforts lopsidedly target invasives affecting
agriculture rather than forests, rangelands, lakes, rivers
and other natural areas, whose fate is just as crucial.
Nearly half of all endangered and threatened species in
the United States are at risk because of invaders that
are severely disrupting natural ecosystems. These losses
don't show up on the trade-balance sheets, even when they
are vital to maintaining clean water and clean air, not
to mention habitat for wild species.
Even so, the tally of what we're losing in natural areas
is becoming hard to ignore. In recent years, alien insects
and diseases have wiped out nearly all butternut trees
in the Appalachians and half or more of all native dogwoods.
Native hemlocks have been disappearing from Connecticut
to the Carolinas during the past couple of decades because
of a European insect, the hemlock woolly adelgid.
"Whatever we're doing now, it's not working,"
says Richard Kinney of the Florida Citrus Packers, who
is a veteran of several federal advisory panels. "We've
got a Band-Aid over a cancer that is eating us up. Long-horned
beetle? We ought to be enraged in this country over the
If that indignation takes hold, there's plenty to be
done. We need more public education and volunteer anti-invasives
campaigns, and both national and local programs for early
detection of new invasions. We need an emphatic "rapid
response" system to eradicate problem species before
they become established. We need more stable, long-term
funding for research on prevention and control.
But the first order of business should be clear: Plug
the holes in trade regulation that allow too much easy,
free entry to too many new, unwelcome arrivals.
Nash teaches journalism and environmental studies at
the University of Richmond.
Think you know a little about the extent and variety
of alien invasive species on our shores? Take this quiz.
1. True or false? The snakehead fish, which can walk
on land and survive for days out of water and has been
found in nine states, is native to South America.
2. How many acres of the western United States have been
lost to nonnative weed infestations? A. 3 million; B.
70 million; C. 800, 000; D. 25 million
3. New alien species arrive in San Francisco Bay, which
vies with the Chesapeake for the title of most biologically
polluted, about how often? A. Twice a year; B. Every month;
C. Every 14 weeks; D. Every 6 weeks
4. Karnal bunt is a pest from India that has been found
in Arizona, California and Texas. What is it? A. A wheat
fungus; B. A tree virus; C. A grass-eating insect; D.
A choking weed
5. True or false? The Chesapeake's native oyster population
has been all but wiped out by over-harvesting and an Asian
disease introduced into the bay's waters.
6. True or false? Plants from a California nursery infested
with the sudden oak death fungus have been shipped to
7. Caspian Sea zebra mussels, which have transformed
the Great Lakes ecosystem, have also been found in which
non-Great Lakes state? A. Mississippi; B. Tennessee; C.
Virginia; D. All of these
8. True or false? Asian silver carp, a highly invasive
species that can weigh up to 50 pounds and competes with
native species for food, have a habit of leaping from
the water and hurling themselves at fishermen and boaters.
ANSWERS: 1. False. Snakeheads come from Africa and Asia;
2. B; 3. C; 4. A; 5. True; 6. True; 7. D; 8. True.