The battle against pesticide use to destroy “invasive species” like Spartina alterniflora continued last month, as Fritzi Cohen, owner of the Moby Dick Hotel and Oyster Farm in Nahcotta, organized a panel of scientists and activists to address the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) in Eugene. The panel, entitled “Environmentalism Gone Awry: The war on invasive species – the need for a rational assessment of the costs and benefits of invasive species control,” was well attended and provoked discussions long afterward. The PIELC brings together activists, lawyers, scientists and students from around the world to discuss environmental law and the big environmental issues of the day.
Government agencies, environmental groups and local organizations around the world, with broad public support, have been attempting to eradicate “invasive” or “noxious” plants and animals for many years, with varied success. Recently, a handful of scientists has stepped forward and spoken out against the wholesale destruction of at least some of these species. They have challenged the long-held belief that invasive species are destroying biodiversity and are a threat to native ecosystems.
Others have injected economic botany aspects to the debate, for instance writing a book on the beneficial uses of several invasive species in medicine. Invasive Plant Medicine – The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives by Timothy Lee Scott was on display at the table sponsored by the Rachel Carson Institute at the PIELC held at the University of Oregon in March, where the invasive species panel members mingled with conference attendees, discussing the merits and drawbacks of the war against invasive species.
These discussions sometimes got heated. “You should read my book,” retorted David Theodoropolous, one of the panel members, when confronted by a student who was adamant that invasive species needed to be destroyed at all costs. Theodoropolous’ book, Invasion Biology – Critique of a Pseudoscience, is a heavily referenced tome explaining the historic movements of species around the globe, and some of the history, assumptions and conclusions of the field that has come to be called invasion biology. Theodoropolous argues in the book, and argued during his presentation at the PIELC, that many of the tenets of invasion biology are not backed up by data. He gave numerous examples in his talk of species that are considered harmful in U.S. habitats, including purple loosestrife, eucalyptus, and saltcedar, and showed pictorial and anecdotal evidence that these species do not cause loss of biodiversity, nor do they establish in healthy native ecosystems.
The panel led off with a talk by Sydney Ross Singer, a medical anthropologist from Hawaii, who has been fighting against the eradication of several species there, including the coqui frog, mangroves, strawberry guava, and “pests” such as peacocks, parrots, veiled chameleons, Mouflon sheep, and even cats. Singer highlighted his amazement at the methods used to eradicate these species, which he claimed do not merit any malice, and are in many cases beneficial. The panel audience, composed of many students, local activists, and even Dr. Vandana Shiva, the conference’s main keynote speaker, seemed very interested in the legal aspects discussed by Singer. Laws and regulations have been passed and proposed in Hawaii that go farther than in many other states in the U.S., Singer asserted. He later handed out copies of his book, co-written with his wife, Soma Grismaijer (who also attended the conference), Panic in Paradise – Invasive Species Hysteria and the Hawaiian Coqui Frog War, to panel attendees. It was the first trip back to the mainland in 12 years for the couple, who live on a self-sustaining farm on the Big Island.
Also speaking on the panel was Boyce Thorne Miller, Science and Policy Coordinator of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA), a New England group promoting community- and ecosystem-based management of the fisheries in the area. Miller also happens to be a native Astorian. “I have fond memories of Astoria,” said Miller when we discussed her childhood here in the 50s. She gave a talk that centered on the precautionary principle, a bulwark of her work with NAMA and previous organizations and institutions. She quoted many scientists that have become alarmed at the response to movement of species around the globe. “Basically, the cure is worse than the disease,” was Miller’s message.
The panel concluded with a presentation by Dr. James Morris, director of the Belle Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences, Professor of Biological Sciences, and Distinguished Professor of Marine Studies at the University of South Carolina. Dr. Morris’ talk, entitled “Costs and Benefits of the Control of Invasive Plant Species”, highlighted the grass that Cohen has made famous in these parts. Morris described research he is engaged in that details the economic benefits of Spartina alterniflora, which delivers ecosystem services such as storm and shoreline protection, nutrient removal and transformation, fish and shrimp nursery habitat, and recreational hunting, fishing and birdwatching. “With carbon cap and trade legislation looming, the value of Spartina rises even further,” he emphasized. Morris showed the audience evidence from The Netherlands of mudflats and birds happily coexisting with Spartina on a plot in a river planted in the 1930s. He concluded that we must weigh the costs and benefits of control of any species, as it is likely that only with perpetual applications of pesticides can species such as Spartina be controlled, at great cost.
Considering the history of species movement around the globe, the continuing spread of humans, and the lack of research into the long-term consequences of pesticide use, all the panel speakers agreed that the costs of control must be figured into the policies dealing with invasive species, and a new recognition of these species’ benefits must be developed.