Government Eyes Creepy Creatures

A European green crab, an invasive predator that has been found in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, is shown in this undated photo. The crabs feed on clams and oysters, posing a huge threat to Washington's shellfish industry. Ecologists, state and federal officials met Wednesday in search of a way to stop non-native marine plants and animals such as Purple Loosestrife, Chinese Mitten Crab and Spartina from clogging Washington's waterways.(
From the snakehead fish in Maryland to zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, invasions by foreign species are a growing problem.

To better understand and control the invaders, the government is opening a new center to study these species, and U.S. and foreign researchers are working together to share data.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday it is establishing a new National Center for Research on Aquatic Invasive Species in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"Each year, aquatic invasive species wreak billions of dollars in damages on the U.S. economy, much of which is passed on to the consumer," said NOAA Administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher.

Coastal waters worldwide are increasingly becoming infested with foreign species that proliferate because they lack predators that kept them in check at home. Often the newcomers are discharged in the ballast water of ships.

The new NOAA center will coordinate research efforts on invasive species and will work with other agencies.

Meanwhile, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Md., announced it has formed a partnership with CSIRO Marine Research in Hobart, Australia. The two groups will combine their databases of invasive species, creating a global inventory to help scientists and managers cope with the problem.

The two database systems provide extensive information about hundreds of marine species, said Greg Ruiz, director of the Smithsonian's Marine Invasions Research Laboratory.

Among the invasive species causing problems:

  • The veined rapa whelk, a mollusk that has impacted shellfisheries in the Mediterranean and Black Sea and may threaten New England shellfisheries, as its range expands from a recent foothold in the Chesapeake Bay.
  • The European Green Crab that has established along both U.S. coasts and is a voracious shellfish predator, impacting both commercial and noncommercial species.
  • An invasion of tiny jellyfish has killed hundreds of thousands of salmon at fish farms off Scotland.
  • The northern snakehead fish that prompted Maryland officials to poison three ponds before it could spread.

    By combining data from the Smithsonian and CSIRO — Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization — researchers can learn more about species that have already threatened their waters and others that may pose potential threats.

    The Smithsonian database, called NEMESIS — National Exotic Marine and Estuarine Information System — and its Australian counterpart summarize the invasion history, distribution, biology, ecology and impacts of invaders.

    Ruiz said the Smithsonian wants to add other partners to the effort including museums, government agencies, universities and other organizations that maintain databases on nonnative species.

    NOAA's center for research on aquatic invasive species will be located at the agency's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, which has been studying invasive species for 14 years.

    Stephen Brandt, research lab director, said the center will establish regional coordinators in six major aquatic coastal regions around the country.

    Lautenbacher said Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans has indicated it plans to develop a similar Canadian Aquatic Invasive Species Research Centre and expressed the desire to have the two centers work together.