Invasive Species: Pets or Pests—Can We Keep Our Critters Contained?

Listen to the Session:

      1. http://www.sej.org/sites/default/files/webform/conf11/CS3ENERGY.mp3

Lionfish are becoming a severe problem on the U.S. East Coast, Lad Atkins, founding executive director of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, told an audience at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Miami on Saturday morning

The fish grow as large as one-half meter and their population density in the U.S. is seven to 10 times greater than that observed in native regions.

Lionfish eat 50 different species of fish in South Florida and have no predators to limit their numbers.

“We believe that’s what’s facilitating this invasion,” said Atkins.

Atkins and other experts on non-native, invasive animal species discussed the threats that these species pose in South Florida and which measures are being taken to limit the damage at the panel session.

Atkins currently directs his organization’s special projects and talked in depth about the ubiquity of lionfish in South Florida.

Although regional sessions are being held to discuss solutions to the lionfish invasion and a national response plan is in the works, Atkins was honest in his frustration.

“We don’t have any perfect solutions on the horizon,” he said.

Peter Jenkins, director of the Center for Invasive Prevention, spoke about the exotic pet trade and the invasive species it has released into South Florida.

“We need to keep the highly risky species out of the trade,” Jenkins said.

He insisted that the issue continues to worsen. Redline fish, North African rock pythons and Burmese pythons dominate native species.

Jenkins said the Fish and Wildlife Commission needs to improve its communication with scientists, as their ability to predict dangerous species has improved in recent years.

Jenkins believes that there needs to be more regulation in the realm of exotic pets. The money currently being spent on eradicating outbreaks of invasives far exceeds the cost of careful regulation.

“Unless it’s in law, it’s not going to make a difference,” he said.

Marshall Meyers has represented the pet industry for more than 40 years at the international, federal, and state level. He works as a senior advisor for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council.

Meyers brought up the Lacey Act, which was originally passed in 1900, but rarely amended. He said it doesn’t do enough to protect and regulate pets, and needs to be “modernized.”

Meyers explained that Florida is the only state with an amnesty program that cares for exotic pets when their owners are no longer willing or able to do so. Elsewhere in the nation, however, namely in the handful of states without any regulation, these pets would be ignorantly released into the wild.

“There needs to be a highly regulated system,” Meyers said, “a combination of regulatory and non-regulatory.”

Lori Williams has directed the National Invasive Species Council since its creation in 1999. She agreed that the problem of invasives is not being dealt with adequately.

Williams said there are 13 departments and agencies associated with the council.

“The idea is to get the agencies working together in a coordinated manner,” she said.

Overall, Williams said, the coverage in the press concerning invasive species has been excellent and has made the public aware of specific issues.

Still, she stressed that “prevention, early detection and rapid response” is necessary.

“If you get to these things early, they’re not expensive,” Williams said.


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