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Now, invasive species stream in online

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 28, 2004

It's a beautiful green water frond with delicate petals. Pleasant enough to look at with names like "Water Thyme" and "Star Vine."

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But don't let its looks fool you. Hydrilla verticillata, which grows up to several feet thick and chokes the life out of lakes and ponds, has been dubbed the "killer" weed by those in the know.

"It's just a thug," says Leslie Mehrhoff, director of the Invasive Plant Atlas of New England.

Once a problem mostly in Southern states, hydrilla has become an aquatic scourge in a third of US states. Researchers blame the weed's spread not only on unwitting aquarium hobbyists and motor-boat propellers, but also the Internet.

Indeed, online sales of such noxious weeds - some of them illegal - have flourished so much in the past few years that the federal government is preparing a high-tech crackdown.

"We've seen a link between growing Internet sales, the mail system, and the spread of these plants," says Larry Fowler, a botanist with the US Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). "We realize many people are simply unaware of our laws, but that still doesn't make it right. And there's still a segment that is quite aware of the law and is still selling."

The hydrilla - named after the hydra-headed monster of Greek mythology - is on the federal govern- ment's short list of "noxious weeds," making it illegal to buy or sell it nationwide.

Nevertheless, an online search leads within minutes to the website of a New York pet store offering not only hydrilla, but also another federally banned plant - Hygrophila polysperma, known as "Indian Water Star."

"We know our products," the website boasts. "We're proud to have the most knowledgeable staff in the industry."

Clearly, federal law is not the company's strong point.

Businesses selling banned plants can be fined up to $250,000 under federal law, while smuggling them into the US can bring criminal penalties.

New tracking system

Nearly three years ago, Mr. Fowler saw the danger of Internet sales of invasive species. Miscreants were selling with impunity invasive plants like hydrilla. Next-day courier services made it possible to ship them coast-to-coast or even from abroad with little scrutiny.

With the help of North Carolina State University researchers and the Internet search company Fast Search & Transfer, Fowler created a system that can identify and track Web pages and Internet operators selling outlawed plants.

The resulting high-tech enforcement tool, called the Agricultural Internet Monitoring System (AIMS), is to be unveiled in January. Already, its pilot test has identified 6,568 distinct pages on websites belonging to US suppliers who may be hawking banned plants (4,790 pages), mollusks (734 pages), and insects (1,044 pages). Those numbers could rise dramatically as researchers eliminate technical glitches.

As soon as January, US sellers of regulated plants will begin to get e-mail notices from APHIS warning them to produce a federal permit to sell such plants - or stop selling them.

Hydrilla has spread northward to 16 states, including Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts, according to the US Agriculture Department. Hydrilla was found in Massachusetts in a pond on Cape Cod two years go. Scientists theorize it may have arrived with aquarium hobbyists who dumped fish tanks into local ponds - or even as tendrils stuck to propellers of motor boats.