Defeating the Invasive Hordes

Optimism is usually not a word associated with invasive species management.  Too often, observers of invasive species challenges view the situation as hopeless, or at best as fighting a noble but ultimately futile rear-guard action against the invaders.  However, the facts indicate otherwise.  When dedicated people decide to tackle an invasive species problem using a combination of targeted research, clear accountability, engineering know-how, a dedicated source of funding, and a multi-stakeholder approach, all sorts of positive things can happen.  Examples of success are all around us, if we simply look for them.

A case in point is the amazingly successful international program to bring back the Great Lakes fisheries in the face of the onslaught of the invasive sea lamprey.   The sea lamprey is a parasite that latches onto a live fish and sucks out its body fluids; an aquatic version of Count Dracula.  The sea lamprey was able to get into the Great Lakes from the Atlantic Ocean as an unintended consequence of efforts to enhance trade by providing a navigation route for vessels to the American Midwest industrial heartland.  First observed in Lake Ontario in the 1830s, they gradually moved upstream to the West.   In the 1940s, their population exploded across the Great Lakes, nearly driving the valuable commercial and recreational fisheries to extinction, with harvests reduced by 99%.  Check out this frightening photo of a captured sea lamprey in NJ.

The United States and Canada reacted by creating the Great Lakes Fishery Commission in 1955. Exhaustive research yielded a highly selective poison in 1957 that kills larval sea lampreys without harming fish.  Today, sea lamprey populations have been slashed by 90%. The reduction in sea lamprey saves more than 100 million fish each year—that’s 100 million fish that can be caught, can reproduce, or could live a natural life.  The resulting fishery is worth $7 billion dollars a year, and is enjoyed by millions of people around the Great Lakes.  The sea lamprey control program, now expanded to include other technologies and techniques, costs the US and Canada a total of about $20 million annually, yielding a benefit cost ratio of about 350:1.  This achievement recently led to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission receiving an award at a Capitol Hill event sponsored by the Reduce Risks from Invasive Species Coalition.

Solid research, clear accountability, engineering know-how, adequate funding, and a multi-stakeholder approach have kept the invasive sea lamprey at bay, and in the process protected a culturally, ecologically, and economically valuable resource.  This type of approach can and does work in dealing with other invasive species as well.

About the Author:  Scott Cameron is the Founder of RRISC (Reduce Risks from Invasive Species Coalition).