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Kate Wing’s Blog

Invading armies, travelling on your belly

Kate Wing

Posted February 22, 2008

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Mr. Wetzler threw me a bone (or a tentacle as it were) in his post on the recent NYT OpEd by Taras Grescoe. Jennifer's also blogging it at Shifting Baselines -- with some good comments to boot -- so I should really climb out of my work routine and respond. 

I've dug out my well-worn copy of "Harmful non-indigenous species in the U.S." from my thesis work. Ah, the old Office of Technology Assessment. Sure would be handy to have a non-partisan agency using science to look at technologies these days, but I digress.

Grescoe's OpEd focuses on critters from unintentional invasions, which tend to be smaller organisms or larvae like you would find in ballast water. It's true we do have a big job tackling the global systems that make it easy for hitchhikers to find and settle in new homes. It's not just the ballast but the containers themselves which give easy access to insects, seeds, slugs and snails. In the mid-1980's containers of tires brought Asian mosquitoes to the U.S. and wooden packing material has brought us bark beetles.

We could all go out in the yard and slurp up some mosquito larvae but it's going to take bigger policies and technologies to stop the accidental invasions that are tied to our voracious appetite for trade. As Grescoe's book (which I have not yet read) is titled "Bottom feeder" I suspect he chose the plankton invaders for the worthy goal of encouraging us to eat lower on the food chain. All perfectly well and good, but don't forget that many of our most difficult invasives arrived here intentionally.

When you make something tasty or valuable, people will want it and it will spread like pet rocks or Air Jordans or Facebook. I grew up fishing for striped bass, or rockfish, in the Chesapeake and was surprised to find them in San Francisco Bay, where fishermen had introduced them decades earlier. They wanted the taste and sport of a familiar fish. California has spent millions of dollars eradicating the northern pike infestation in Lake Davis, where pike decimated the native trout. Fishing derbies weren't enough to wipe out the fast-growing fish, and starting a commercial fishery would mean pike transported throughout the state, increasing the odds of another invasion. Or a would-be entrepreneur would start his own pike farm in a nearby lake. 

So, I'm all for foraging, but marketing invasives is a risky business. If these invasives are really coming soon to a restaurant near you, they may be coming to stay. Be careful who you invite to dinner.

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