Invasive Species Legislation and Your Aquarium

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Proposed Law Goes Too Far

John Tullock is a marine zoologist and author.

By John Tullock
September 24, 2008

Reports of Indo-Pacific lionfish munching on native fish species off the Atlantic Coast come amid renewed calls for restrictions on the importation of nonnative species.

A proposed new law, sponsored by Congresswoman Madeline Bordallo, (D) Guam, would adversely affect importation, breeding and possession of the approximately 10,000 species in the pet trade, including hundreds of aquarium fish and invertebrates.

Aquarists should let their representatives know this law will adversely affect our hobby and the trade it supports, without effectively dealing with the problem of invasive species.

Miles Lionfish, Pterois miles, now established off US coast. NOAA image.

To be sure, the lionfish problem (see Lionfish Invasion Spreads) can likely be traced, sadly, to accidental and/or intentional releases from the aquarium hobby and trade. The fish species in question, Pterois volitans and P. miles have little or no commercial value outside the aquarium industry. Thus, the initial invaders were probably brought in for aquarium sales. It is difficult to imagine how they might have become so firmly entrenched so quickly as the result of a random, “ballast water” introduction. Hobbyists or dealers, unable to cope with a fish that reaches well over a foot in length, have, probably with great reluctance, released numerous adult specimens into our offshore waters, no doubt thinking they were humanely disposing of a pet they could no longer care for. Thus, aquarists will probably have to own this particular invasion. We are forced to admit that unintended consequences can sometimes be attributed to our well-intentioned efforts in bringing exotic species from the oceans and rivers of the world into our home aquariums.

Spectre of Banning Popular Fishes

Nevertheless, the latest attempt by Congress to confront invasive species issues, known as the Nonnative Wildlife Invasion Prevention Act (HR6311), goes too far. It places an unnecessarily onerous burden on the aquarium industry and some others dependent upon animal imports.

Congresswoman Madeline Bardallo, (D, Guam), sponsor of the bill.

A key provision of HR6311 directs the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to create and publish a list of wildlife species approved for importation. Thereafter, importation of any species not on the list would be prohibited. Possession or cultivation of non-listed species would also be banned, leaving open the question of what to do with individuals of any banned species that might already be here.

Specifics of Listing "Approved Species"

The Act would require the USFWS to take at least eleven factors into consideration in determining whether to list a species. The following list was cut and pasted directly from the text of the bill:

  • (1) the identity of the organism to the species level, including to the extent possible more specific information on its subspecies and genetic identity;
  • (2) the geographic source of the species and the conditions under which it was captured or bred;
  • (3) whether the species has established or spread, or caused harm to the economy or the environment or the health of humans or of wildlife, in ecosystems that are similar to those in the United States but are located outside the United States;
  • (4) the likelihood that environmental conditions suitable for the establishment or spread of the species exist anywhere in the United States;
  • (5) the likelihood of establishment of the species in the United States;
  • (6) the likelihood of spread of the species in the United States;
  • (7) the likelihood that the species would harm wildlife resources in the United States;
  • (8) the likelihood that the species would harm rare, threatened, or endangered species in the United States;
  • (9) the likelihood that the species would harm habitats or ecosystems in the United States;
  • (10) the likelihood that pathogenic species, parasitic species, or free-living species may accompany the species proposed for importation; and
  • (11) other factors important to the risks associated with the species.

Overloading a Faltering System

Sounds like a thorough and reasoned approach, does it not?

Most definitely not, according to Marshall Meyers, Executive Vice-President and General Counsel of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC). Meyers and I have met only once, on opposite sides of the table in discussions about another kind of aquarium industry list. At that time, we had many disagreements, but that is a story for another blog post. Now, we see eye-to-eye on the invasive species issue.

Meyers testified before Congress last July 26. Some highlights of his testimony will serve to expose many of the serious flaws to be found in HR6311.

In the first place, Meyers correctly points out that much of the bill is redundant.

“PIJAC believes ...that the appropriate directives for risk management [regarding invasive species] are contained in the Lacey Act, the National Invasive Species Management Plan [and other initiatives.] As we have testified previously, the requisite human and financial resources have yet to be made available to the relevant federal agencies so that they can fully and effectively implement and enforce existing policies and programs. Until the government is willing to invest in implementation and enforcement of the regulatory measures it has already enacted, additional regulations will serve only to cripple an already faltering system.”

Listing the Full Animal Kingdom?

I agree completely that better enforcement of existing regulations would serve to accomplish much of what the bill sets out to do, which is reduce the risk of introducing an invasive species into an American ecosystem.

Meyer’s testimony focuses, sometimes wryly, upon the obvious lack of understanding on the part of the bill’s authors of the complex nature not only of the pet industry, but also of the biosphere itself. He soberly states:

“Since violations of the proposed Act would also constitute a violation of the criminal provisions of the Lacey Act, full and complete lists of what is legal and illegal should be published by the USFWS to ensure adequate notice of what constitutes a violation of law. Due process calls for no less. To ensure proper notice and avoid confusion, the approved and unapproved lists should contain every species in the animal kingdom to ensure that the public is aware of what is illegal as well as legal inasmuch as they are subject to a strict liability criminal statute.”

Of course, no list of every species in the animal kingdom exists, even though some efforts are underway to compile one. We don’t know how many species there are, much less which ones might be harmful. If Meyers’ touch of sarcasm here was lost on legislators, it would come as no surprise to me, however. The bill is full of such nonsense.

"Mystery Fish" No More

Peckolita sabaji. New and poorly studied species would be banned.

When HR6311 requires that all nonnative organisms proposed for importation to the United States be identified “to the species level, including to the extent possible more specific information on its subspecies and genetic identity” Meyers rightfully asks what should be done about the South American armored catfishes that are imported by the thousands, and which have not yet been described by ichthyologists. For many of these, there is no species name, much less information about genetic identity. One can make a similar argument for the legions of marine invertebrates belonging to undescribed taxa. In terms of the number of affected species, the aquarium industry would surely bear the brunt of this legislation. There are about 1,600 species of freshwater fish, alone, in the aquarium trade.

What about “the likelihood that pathogenic species, parasitic species, or free-living species may accompany the species proposed for importation” as a consideration? All animal species harbor other organisms, but as Meyers notes, the mere presence of a secondary organism does not imply danger. Some parasites, for example, survive only in or on a particular host, and thus pose no threat to anything else.

These are but some examples of how this proposed legislation falls short. Meyers offers many others in his comments before the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans of the House Natural Resources Committee.

The complete text can be downloaded at:

Even a cursory reading of this document will reveal the extraordinary complexity of the issues involved.

Farewell to the Goldfish?

Perhaps of greatest importance to aquarium hobbyists, and to the pet industry in general, is Meyers’ scenario for what might happen if HR6311 becomes law without revision:

A blanket ban might outlaw many common aquarium species. Image by Aaron Norman.

“...common goldfish, many tropical fish, and myriad common species of birds and reptiles would be banned from the entire United States if it could be demonstrated that under Section 3(b)(4) there is a likelihood that ‘environmental conditions suitable for the establishment or spread…exist anywhere in the United States.’ Marine organisms would be banned in Kansas because they might become established in Hawaiian waters; a parakeet would be banned in Minnesota because it could survive in south Florida.”

You can read the entire text of HR6311 here:

Once you’re done reading, you might want to email your representative. All of us have an interest in preventing truly harmful species from entering the country for whatever reason. But requiring proof that a species has zero potential for harm anytime, anyplace before it can be imported is not only ludicrous, but logistically impossible. Industry stakeholders and hobbyists alike should ask Congress to take a more carefully thought-out approach to this problem.

John Tullock Live

This column is also available as a blog where readers can post comments: [John Tullock Live]

Further Reading


Reference: Natural Reef Aquariums
Image credit: JJ
Text credit: JHT