June 15, 2004

The Internet, the Round Goby, and World Peace

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

Rochester, MN -- Up at Wolf’s Marina in Stillwater on Sunday, the talk on the dock was all about the season’s first citing on Lake Pepin of Bighead and Silver Carp – the strange fish that jump like giant fleas out of the wake of outboard motors, sometimes hitting folks on board smack on the head.

But the Asian carp is only one division in an army of invaders that has already infiltrated Minnesota, the boaters agreed. There was also the Round Goby, a bottom-dwelling, pollution-loving, fish-egg-eating menace from Eastern Europe; the Zebra Mussel from the Caspian Sea in northern Iran; and the Purple Loosestrife, a tall plant from Europe that is exceptionally pretty but has a rotten personality, as its name describes.

The summer invasion of exotics has begun. And with it a reminder more poignant than ever that in our biological and environmental, as well as our political habitat, the porous borders of freedom come at a heavy price.

The ballast tanks of Great Lakes tankers, Mississippi cargo boats, and other commercial craft were years ago identified as the source of many foreign plant and animal species entering Minnesota’s water systems.

Brown Paper Bag

Now, thanks to economic globalization, even faster pathways are introducing new species into the state’s natural habitats – especially the multi-billion-dollar global horticulture industry, much of it conducted over the Internet.

“The Internet provides quick access to potentially invasive species,” says Doug Jensen, coordinator of the University of Minnesota’s Sea Grant program for improving the state’s coastal waters. “An order from Singapore could arrive within days in a brown paper bag, unprotected and undetected by federal agents. These species may be highly problematic.”

Liberal trade and immigration policies also hasten the introduction of invasive species into the United States. Altogether, these forces have speeded up the rate of non-native species introduction into the U.S. by 3,000 times the natural rate, Jensen estimates.

Since 1970, about 1.4 new species per year has been introduced into the Great Lakes, he said, a vastly higher than natural rate.

A Minnesota naturalist can sound like an anti-terror specialist at the Department of Homeland Security, in these strange days. Sometimes it’s not just a similarity in language but a complete merging of real goals.

“What species in other countries could decimate our agriculture, it’s something we think about but don’t talk about that much” for obvious reasons, said Jay Rendall, coordinator of Exotic Species for the Department of Natural Resources.

Dangerous Elements

Water gardening, one of the fastest-growing garden trends in the U.S., is now one of the state’s top priorities in monitoring non-native species imports, according to Barbara Liukkonen, a water resource specialist for Sea Grant. Of the 140 non-native plant and animal species in the Great Lakes region, Liukkonen says, 42 percent were introduced in the past four years via the horticulture trade. Many of the imports were to supply water gardens.

Nine out of ten shipments of aquatic plants imported by nurseries come with “hitchhikers,” small animals like Koi carp or Chinese Mystery Snails, which may themselves potentially introduce dangerous elements into the Minnesota ecosystem, Liukkonen said.

If we figure out a good solution to the problem of non-native plants and animals coming into this country, we’ll learn something about how to handle the problem of nation’s porous borders in other areas, too.

For example, naturalists always emphasize the need for extremely careful discrimination among classes of non-native species – especially between the ones that are invasive and the ones that are not. There are a hundred times fewer invasive species than perfectly safe species. Among the latter, many add substantially to our quality of life and in no way harm it.

Global Perspective

In some cases, even the so-called invasive species can find a genuinely useful niche. Zebra mussels have been used as toxin filters. Eurasian Watermilfoil, the bane of many a boating fisherman, can provide a habitat for fish and wildlife in lakes darkened by manmade runoffs.

All the naturalists I spoke with gave a clue to their highly practical perspective on life in their vocabulary, by always saying “non-native” and not “foreign” or “alien” to describe invasive species.

They did that not out of political correctness, I believe, but because they had totally internalized a global perspective. The plants and animals from Asia and Iran and Eastern Europe were simply not foreign or alien to them – they were of the planet earth, the one earth we all share.

That’s a perspective worth learning.

Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report