WASHINGTON – With the specter of “Frankenfish” still fresh, federal officials on Wednesday unveiled legislation aimed at keeping foreign aquatic species out of the country and checking those that are already here.
“This is not al Qaeda, but this is invaders from other countries,” said Rep. Vernon Elhers, R-Mich., a co-sponsor of the National Aquatic Invasive Species Act of 2002.
Those invaders cost the government “$135 billion a year, that’s half the defense budget,” Elhers said.
The Chesapeake Bay alone has 202 foreign species, many of which lack predators here and so prey freely on native species, according to bill supporters.
The latest to make news was the northern snakehead, a voracious Chinese fish that can walk short distances on land. Fears that “Frankenfish” could walk away from the Crofton pond where it was discovered this summer led state officials to poison the pond, killing everything in it.
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, is lead sponsor of the bill that would regulate ballast discharge from commercial vessels, screen imports of live organisms, create a national database to monitor invasive species, promote education and research.
While the bill focuses on keeping foreign species out, it also includes federal rapid-response funding to help states eradicate species once they’re here, said Allegra Cangelosi of the Northeast-Midwest Institute, which helped craft the bill. Such funding would help states deal with species like the mute swan, which has already invaded the Chesapeake Bay.
Cangelosi said the bill also calls on the Environmental Protection Agency to develop ways to eradicate species without causing more damage to an ecosystem, so that states will not have to poison entire waterways as Maryland did with the snakehead.
The bill cites ballast water from commercial ships as a major transporter of foreign species. The water used to balance the ship is usually picked up at a foreign port, allowing foreign organisms to hitch a ride to this country, where the water is dumped once the ship reaches port, Gilchrest said.
He said experts believe the Rapa whelk traveled from Japanese or Korean waters to the Chesapeake Bay in ballast water. The whelks have no natural predators in the bay and are preying on the bay’s threatened oyster population.
The bill would ban the release of ballast water near U.S. waterways and require ships built after January 2006 to have ballast-treatment equipment that kills 95 percent of the traveling organisms, Gilchrest said.
Michael Schultz, a spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the foundation had not seen details of the bill but that it would support any regulation of ballast water discharges.
While mostly nonspecific, the bill does single out the nutria, the beaver- like South American rodent that has destroyed thousands of acres of wetlands around the bay. The program will determine if nutria can be eradicated, restore damaged wetlands and raise public awareness about the impact of the rodents.
The overall bill will cost $140 million a year, but that is a bargain compared to the billions that invasive species cost federal and state governments, Gilchrest said.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., has introduced a companion bill in the Senate. Gilchrest said he hopes to win passage of the measure by next month, so it could be signed into law before the congressional session ends.