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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
JULY 25, 2002
8:11 PM
CONTACT:  World Wildlife Fund
Kerry Green Zobor 202-778-9509
Snakehead Fish: Not the Only Invasive Species Damaging U.S. Crops and Native Wildlife, Says World Wildlife Fund
 
WASHINGTON - July 25 - The air-breathing snakehead fish found in suburban Maryland has received national attention, but it's only one of more than 30,000 invasive species that now call the United States home and are making life difficult for the species that were there first.

And while the snakehead has become a national celebrity - rightly so, with its ability to survive out of water and even propel itself short distances across land with their fins - many species are even more detrimental to the habitats they have invaded. Flying Asian carp in Lake Erie, piranhas in a lake in Iowa, and citrus long-horned beetles in Seattle are among this notorious group.

"An aggressive predator such as the snakehead can be disastrous for native wildlife," said John Morrison of WWF's Conservation Science Program. "But the threat from an invasive species like the snakehead is nothing new. They're everywhere. In fact, just looking outside my office window right now, the only birds I see are pigeons, house sparrows and starlings, all natives of Europe. Starlings, for example, compete with native birds for cavities to nest in. While it's probably too late to address starlings in our environment, we should actively try to prevent other non-native species from becoming established here."

The snakehead found in Maryland has been traced to an individual who dumped it in the pond after it outgrew his home aquarium. Snakeheads can grow to be a foot and a half long, live three days out of water and prey on frogs, aquatic birds and even small mammals. None of this is a problem in the snakehead's home range in China where its population is kept in check by an array of predators. But none of the snakehead's predators live in the United States.

"Invasives are a big problem because once they're in an ecosystem, they can be difficult or even impossible to remove," continued Morrison. "Invasives thrive because they outcompete native species, having left most of their natural predators, competitors and diseases behind."

Invasive cost the U.S. economy $123 billion a year, according to a Cornell University study. Weeds and diseases in crops top the list of the most damaging invaders, costing the nation more than $53 billion annually. Rats are next on the list, causing $19 billion a year in damages.

Invasives around the U.S.

-- West -- Found in all western states, and even in some eastern states, the leafy spurge plant is a plague for cattle ranchers, reducing the productivity of grazing land by 50 to 75 percent and costing the U.S. economy $100 million each year. Leafy spurge displaces native vegetation and sends out plant toxins that prevent the growth of other plants underneath it.

-- East Coast -- Say goodbye to that favorite hemlock tree. The tiny hemlock woolly adelgid, accidentally introduced in the '50s from Japan, kills hemlocks in just four years. The threat is so severe that hemlocks might go the way of chestnut trees, which once accounted for nearly a quarter of the trees in eastern forests, but were virtually wiped out by an invasive fungus around the turn of the century.

-- Great Lakes and Mississippi -- In just 14 years, zebra mussels have spread throughout many of the major waterways in the central United States. Native to eastern Europe and western Asia, the zebra mussel this year may cost $5 billion in the Great Lakes region alone to control, according to the U.S. Geological Survey estimates.

-- Southeast -- Kudzu, a fast-growing vine from Asia that can smother a mature tree, was brought to this country for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. Soon after, it became a popular shade vine in the south. The U.S. government even paid people to grow it to control erosion. Millions are now spent trying to control it.

-- Sunbelt -- Ask any boater in the coastal Sunbelt and they will tell you about thick carpets of hydrilla floating in rivers and lakes. Native to Africa, Asia and Australia, the plant was introduced to Florida where it was cultivated for the aquarium industry. The weed now chokes waterways from California to Maryland.

-- Northeast -- The wetlands of the Northeast and Upper Midwest are today full of beautiful purple flowers. Unfortunately the purple loosestrife flower has become a menace, sucking up water, outcompeting native species and providing little or no habitat for native species. The plant came to this country from Europe and is still planted as an ornamental.

-- Hawaii and Guam -- Islands have, by far, the worst problems with invasives. Islands often have unusual species that are vulnerable to introduced species like the brown tree snake, which has killed off nine of Guam's 11 native birds. In some forested areas there are more than 12,000 snakes per square mile. More than 200 people have been treated for bites from this aggressive and venomous snake.

Solutions to the invasives problem are hard to come by. While education and enforcement efforts have been effective in some places, invasive species are a growing problem as the movement of plants and animals increases around the world. For example, 40,000 gallons of ballast water is dumped into U.S. harbors every minute.

"Considering the billions we spend fighting the invasives that are already here, we could do a better job preventing them from being introduced in the first place," said Craig Hoover, deputy director of TRAFFIC North America (TRAFFIC is a joint program of WWF and IUCN -- The World Conservation Union). "We need to think long and hard about how and what we move around the globe because invasives can easily hitch a ride on planes, cars -- even on shoes -- and cause tremendous damage."

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