Now, invasive species stream in online
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But the latest reason given for the spread of such plants is technological.Skip to next paragraph
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"The Internet sales of plants and other organisms is quite a large unknown and there's little if any regulation," says Ted Grosholz, an ecology professor at the University of California at Davis. He leads a program that intends to educate the public and businesses as a way to reduce the introduction of nonindigenous species.
One of his concerns: the seaweed Caulerpa taxifolia, dubbed "killer algae" because of its propensity for spreading fast and pushing out other species. Popular with aquarium fanciers, caulerpa escaped in the mid-1980s into the Mediterranean, where it has become a huge problem. In 2000, it showed up in a lagoon in Carlsbad, Calif.
Efforts to eradicate it in California appear to be working, but the threat remains of caulerpa being shipped from overseas to California aquarium lovers. "We're working with both the pet and aquarium trade," Professor Grosholz says.
What's needed most is more consumer and pet-store education, the pet industry says.
"Internet sales can be a real problem," says Marshall Meyers, executive vice president of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, an industry group overseeing the invasive-species issue. "You can buy giant salvinia over the Internet out of Europe. [But] this is an area that's confusing to the public. Not all nonnative species of fish and plants are invasive. Our industry relies on nonnative species. One thing we are trying to do is educate the public not to release these into the environment."
The council will soon begin mailing information to pet owners to acquaint them with the invasive-species problem. It also supports Agriculture Department efforts to police the Web, though some sellers may be doing so out of ignorance of the law, Mr. Meyers says.
At least initially, the AIMS Web-scanning program will focus on US sales of about 600 organisms, including plants and animals like the Giant African Snail - a voracious creature 6- to 8-inches long that can reproduce quickly and threaten crops. There are plans to expand the system to monitor international websites, Fowler says.
The AIMS program is working with Australia, Britain, and a few other nations to develop an information-sharing system to identify and shut down operations selling invasive plants. The goal is to use the new system to identify sales of "bad actors" abroad, well before they begin to arrive en masse, Fowler says.
People and plants aren't the only ones who move in and change ecosystems. Invasive species of animals are spreading globally. For example:
• Argentine ants, one of the world's most invasive species, have formed a "supercolony" 60 miles wide under Australia's second-biggest city, Melbourne. Also discovered in North America and Europe, the ants drive out local species.
• Cane frogs in New Zealand and rats, pigs, cats, and dogs in New Caledonia are a few of the targets of a $1 million New Zealand project to help protect the fragile ecosystems of Pacific Island nations.
• Sea squirts in America's Puget Sound created such alarm that divers this month used an experimental chlorine treatment to try to get rid of them.