Commentary / World | THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

Don’t exterminate the zebra mussels or ruffes

by Hiroaki Sato

One surprise I had during the fracas in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon early this year — a group of armed men led by an anti-government protester took over a federal facility — was the existence of a large-scale plan to eliminate carp from Malheur Lake.

The “five-year plan” was set last year, but the effort to get rid of the fish had started earlier. The common carp was introduced to the lake in the 1920s (or in 1951; depends on who’s talking) for its food value. Now “millions” of fish abound in the lake that is eight times larger than Manhattan, so it has been a success.

Then why eliminate them? Because the carp, an “invasive species,” changed the character of the shallow body of water from a lake to a marsh, the elimination advocates argued. But is it that simple? Is the ominous, belligerent term “invasive” correct?

A study of some species “invading” areas not of their original growth appears to have been established by Charles Elton’s book “Invasion Ecology” in 1958. But the term “invasive species” became part of U.S. law with the National Invasive Species Act of 1996, which amended the more benignly named Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act of 1990. It specifically listed three small animals: the zebra mussel, the ruffe and the round goby.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 13112 to establish the National Invasive Species Council, with its members made up of representatives of federal departments and agencies. Still, the council’s “invasive species definition clarification and guidance” that came out in 2006 was, in retrospect, rather circumspect, for it said, “many invasive species are examples of ‘the tragedy of the commons.’ “

That “tragedy” is an economic theory proposed by the British writer William Forster Lloyd in 1833. Put simply, it says “how actions that benefit one individual’s use of resources may negatively impact others.” In other words, the determination of an “invasive species” is circumstantial.

But the anti-invasive movement that began in the mid-1980s had become, by the mid-1990s, “a growing threat to biodiversity conservation efforts,” the California seed seller J. L. Hudson wrote in his online bulletin. Hudson may have a stake in promoting various seeds, but isn’t biodiversity indeed one important purpose of nature conservation?

Evidently, the Nature Conservancy doesn’t think so, judging by its splashy special, “Declaring War on Invasives,” some years ago. As I wrote in The Japan Times on May 28, 2007, the main enemy of that war — waged with “poisons, fire, bioweapons, search-and-destroy missions, etc.” — was, of all things, the yellow star thistle. Scott McMillion, who wrote the Nature Conservancy article, didn’t mention it, but this thistle is an important source of pollen and, like so-called “weeds,” plays a great role in restoring “abused” land.

In the meantime, animals were not spared, either. In a span of several years around 2010, the yellow jacket, the carp (yes!), and the lionfish, among others, were marked for destruction in this country, as I reported in “Don’t destroy that invader, it was here first!” (The Japan Times, March 27, 2011).

One of these creatures saw the awesome power of the U.S. government raise its sledgehammer: the Asian Carp Prevention and Control Act of 2010. Shortly afterward, the bighead carp was added to the federal list of “injurious wildlife.” The fish can be “harmful to either the health and welfare of humans, interests of forestry, agriculture or horticulture, or the welfare and survival of wildlife or the resources that wildlife depend upon,” it was explained.

The penalty for raising this fish is six months in prison or $5,000.

When something like “anti-invasive mania” occurs, there’s usually some profiting body behind it. In the case of the insistence on the sanctity of native species or “natives,” it is Monsanto. The seed seller Hudson had pointed out the giant herbicide manufacturer’s influences two decades ago, noting, for example, that it was a sponsor of the 1994 California Exotic Pest Plant Council meeting and had “an employee on the council’s board of directors.”

In “Weed Whackers: Monsanto, glyphosate, and the war on invasive species” (Harper’s, September 2015), Andrew Cockburn describes Monsanto’s insidious and powerful sway on politics in some detail. For example, it pressured the Clinton administration, which obligingly overpowered France’s objection to the company’s GMO corn that is closely related to the most widely used herbicide glyphosate.

In his article, Cockburn also mentions two evolutionary biologists, Stephen Jay Gould and Edward O. Wilson. To my surprise, they had opposite views on “invasive species.” Gould, who was proud of his 300 consecutive monthly essays for Natural History, dismissed the arguments for the sanctity of natives as “romantic drivel.” Natives are no more than “those organisms that first happened to gain and keep a footing,” he wrote, Cockburn says.

Wilson wrote, with a group of other biology professors, that “a rapidly spreading invasion of exotic plants and animals not only is destroying our nation’s biological diversity but is costing the U.S. economy hundreds of millions of dollars annually.” That was in a letter to Vice President Al Gore in 1997.

To me, that argument seems to contradict the “island biogeography” for which Wilson is famous. To demonstrate the theory, he once killed off all the animals on a Florida isle with methyl bromide to see how recolonization occurred, an experiment he describes in his “Naturalist” (1994). Aren’t recolonizers tantamount to invasive species?

The nativist argument reminds me of Robert Frost’s 1941 poem, “The Gift Outright,” that begins: “The land was ours before we were the land’s.” As Derek Walcott, the St. Lucian-Trinidadian poet who won the Nobel Prize for “Omeros,” pointed out, this simply ignores the “colonization of Native Americans” and says “nothing about the dispossession of others.”

I’d like to see “invasion” and “invasive” dropped and the old earlier biological term “alien” restored. It is not satisfactory, either, but in “A Field Guide to Wildflowers” (1968), Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny defined it as “foreign, but successfully established in our area by man, or as an escape.”

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York.