New York City: The Nation’s Ground Zero For Invasive Species

By Cesar Bustamante and Jermaine Taylor

Yong Hao Wu, a Sunset Park resident, was arrested last month for owning over 400 snakehead fish. These fish, which are not native to the United States, are delicacies in China, but if any number were let loose in local waters they could annihilate entire schools of native fish.

The snakehead fish is an example of an invasive species—a non-native organism that can have harmful effects on local ecosystems—that has been introduced into New York City. But it is by no means an isolated case. In fact, New York is widely considered by experts in the field ground zero for the proliferation of invasive species across North America.

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“New York City is the epicenter of invasive species, because it’s one of the busiest ports in North America and serves shipping interests from around the world,” says Glenn Phillips, executive director of the New York City chapter of the National Audubon Society.

New York is also typically the first entry point on the continent for animals and plants that don’t thrive here naturally. Bernd Blossey, associate professor of Life Sciences at Cornell University says, “It serves as a major pathway for invasive species to the rest of North America.”

Problems caused by invasive species have only increased over the past several decades as globalization takes hold and there’s increased international travel and trade, Phillips says. New York has “more different kinds of people from more different kinds of places” who, either accidentally or intentionally, bring foreign species when they travel to the United States.

“Invasive species become problematic because there are not the checks and balances that would have evolved with the species in its native environment,” says Phillips.

These organisms, therefore, have “an unfair advantage” over naturally occurring species.

Invasive species might not be subject to native diseases and are therefore allowed to grow unchecked, for example. Also, they oftentimes disrupt the “predator-prey relationship.” In other words, some species that are native to the area lack the sufficient defense mechanisms to fend off stronger, newer species that prey on them. Also, some invasive species lack predator native to the area to keep their numbers in check.

“The impact of invasive species is both under-appreciated and underestimated,” Blossey says. “The economic costs of invasive species are not insignificant.”

A 2005 report by the New York State Invasive Species Task Force acknowledged that the economic harm caused by invasive species is substantial. Studies at Cornell University estimated that annual costs exceed $120 billion.

The Asian long-horned beetle, both Phillips and Blossey agree, is without a doubt one of the most destructive of invasive species. The long-horned bettle, which was accidentally brought to New York in packing crates and has since spread across North America, is capable of wiping out entire populations of trees, as the beetle’s larva methodically dig tunnels into a variety of hardwood trees and multiply rapidly until the tree becomes infested and dies.

The beetle, Blossey says, has the potential to “completely decimate the American maple sugar and syrup industries because of its devastating impact on maple trees.”

In 1999, President Clinton issued Executive Order 13112 on Invasive Species, which established the National Invasive Species Council to provide national leadership to prevent the introduction of new invasive species and provide for the control of the economic, ecological and human health impacts caused by invasive species. General funding support for the Council is provided by the Department of the Interior.

Still, Blossey says, “Once an invasive species is introduced, it’s difficult to eradicate it, and suppressing it can cost a lot of money as well as have adverse affects on native species.”

New York State, for example, spends as much as $40 million dollars annually in attempts to eradicate the Asian long-horned beetle, according to the 2005 report.

In 1999, the Center for Disease Control, with the help of various state health departments, began using pesticides to try to get rid of mosquitoes that might be infected with the West Nile virus. While many of the pesticides were effective, they also had numerous detrimental impacts on a host of naturally occurring species in the ecosystem.

“These species interrupt the natural order of things, causing an environmental imbalance,” says New York City Audubon’s Phillips.

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