By Eric Freedman
A 12-year-old federal program designed to educate aquarium and water garden hobbyists about the risks of invasive aquatic species is falling short in the Great Lakes region, according to a recent study.
Hobbyists’ behavior is of concern because of the danger of intentionally or accidentally spreading an invader. For example, the study said hobbyists may “transport aquatic hitchhikers that could provide a risk of invasion.”
“Aquatic plants and animals introduced through channels of trade pose a significant threat to “Michigan waters,” the state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development reported last year. “Invasive organisms available through trade can reach Michigan’s waterways via a number of pathways, including intentional release of pets or plants purchased via retail outlets and escape from private ponds and water gardens during floods or other disturbances.”
The new study examined hobbyists’ awareness of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Habitattitude campaign launched in 2004 in partnership with the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. The findings are based on surveys at aquarium and water garden events such as koi competitions, trade shows and garden expositions in all eight Great Lakes states.
“Few regulatory mechanisms exist to control trade of these species,” the study said, and there are “regulatory loopholes” and inconsistences. For example, Indiana prohibits garden stores to sell the potentially invasive Brazilian waterweed but allows pet stores to sell the plant.
In Michigan, the problem of spreading invasives is cause for worry, said fisheries biologist Nicholas Popoff, who supervises the aquatic invasives program in the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
In fact, it’s already happened. For example, “goldfish are naturally reproducing in Lake Erie and Lake, St. Clair,” Popoff said of the popular pets that are native to Asia and arrived in the United States as ornamental fish.
And plants released from water gardens have established toeholds in the state, he said, citing the invasive parrot feather and water lettuce.
While the new study examined the federal program, Michigan has its own public education program and outreach program, RIPPLE — Reduce Invasive Pet and Plant Escapes.
Michigan is focusing on RIPPLE, said Paige Filice, who helped design the program and is now a graduate student in fisheries and wildlife at Michigan State University.
The goal of both RIPPLE and Habitattitude is to educate retailers and customers, said Filice, who promotes the program with local and national pet retailers in the state.
“Retailers are very supportive of this program. A lot of it is because they get a lot of calls” and can’t always take back unwanted fish they sold, she said.
While fish and other animals are the most prominent invaders, non-native aquatic plants are a serious threat, “she said. “A lot more of our problems are in the plant world. They’re made to survive in low light and bad nutrient areas.”
Popoff said hobbyists, breeders, traders and retailers generally know the risks of releasing non-native fish and plants.
He continued, “Many people are not hobbyists — they just like the way the fish look. The issue is the lay person who goes in and wants to buy an aquarium for their child. Unfortunately you can buy these critters anywhere — Meijer, Walmart.”
“But when they realize that the turtle will live longer than their children will live at home, they go out back and dump it.”
As Filice put it, “It’s not the crazy hobbyist — think about how much they pay for their fish.”
Some rare specimens cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars, on the internet.
One potential invader of high concern is the Wels catfish, which Michael Hoff, the Fish & Wildlife Service’s aquatic invasive species program coordinator for the Midwest region based in Bloomington, Minnesota, said “could establish in the Great Lakes because the biology and ecology — climate and habitat match — would allow it to successfully invade there.”
Federal law lists it as “injurious,” meaning it can’t be imported or transported between states without a permit, which is limited to scientific, medical, educational or zoological purposes.
Other worrisome invaders in the Great Lakes region include oriental minnow, White Cloud Mountain minnow, dwarf hygro, parrot feather and Brazilian waterweed.
According to the new study by researchers from Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and North Carolina State University, environmental concern can play a role in avoiding the spread of aquatic invasives by hobbyists.
Environmental awareness has a direct impact on “environmentally responsible behaviors,” it said.
Although the survey found low awareness of the Habitattitude public education and outreach campaign, people who were both aquarium hobbyists and water gardeners were more aware than those who participated in only one of the hobbies.
Even so, only 13 percent of double-hobbyists said they knew about Habitattitude. Only 18 percent recognized the program logo.
Hoff, of the Fish & Wildlife Service, said reasons for low awareness of Habitattitude include insufficient funds for the program and the agency’s limited participation in hobbyist and retailer trade shows.
“We have not invested in this program in a way that’s commensurate with what we need to invest, because the industry has limited resources, as do we in the Fish & Wildlife Service,” Hoff said.
He also said the agency needs to better understand retailers and their demographics to better involve them in public education.
In addition to RIPPLE, other Great Lakes states including Minnesota and Wisconsin, have their own programs.
“If states feel can do better with their own campaign, fine,” Hoff said.
Despite low awareness of Habitattitude the study said many hobbyists receive prevention information about invaders from other sources, such as stores and hobby magazines.
It recommended more effective outreach materials and strategies to educate hobbyists about invasive species, such as informational pamphlets included with purchases at garden and pet retailers. Stores also could verbally explain the Habitattitude campaign to shoppers.
“Retailers possess a strong willingness to educate customers on recommended behaviors,” it said.
Meanwhile, DNR’s Popoff said the department is developing a legislatively mandated list of plant and animal species that residents are permitted to own and trade,
“We’re conducting risk assessments, and consulting with industry”, he said. Once the list is finalized, “if you’re going to have something for sale or own it or trade it, it must be a permitted species.”
There will be a prohibited list of species that aren’t already in Michigan or are rare here — including silver carp and bighead carp. Other species will be on a restricted list, which means that they’re probably already reproducing here, such as zebra mussels, quagga mussels and rusty crayfish.