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 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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
Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report