The Vexing Bugs in the Global Trading System


Kris Maher

Wall Street Journal

Perched on a platform 50 feet above the ground in a big hemlock named Fern, Geoff Elliott points to an unwelcome Asian import: a little bug known as the hemlock woolly adelgid.

Small fuzzy white nymphs cling to the undersides of hemlock branches throughout the grove of trees. Both nymphs and adult adelgids can work quickly to destroy hemlocks 150 feet tall.

This tree is believed to be somewhere between 200 and 300 years in age and can be taken out by the adelgid in as little as two to four years,” says Mr. Elliott, a tour guide for Adventure West Virginia Resort LLC, which operates zip-line tours through the treetops. The company is trying to educate visitors about the dangers of the invasive insect as it diminishes the landscape the business relies on.

“Without any action we could lose the species,” said Mark Whitmore, a forest entomologist at Cornell University. He described the hemlock as a “keystone species,” because it provides shade that cools streams so fish can survive as well shelter for birds and animals. Losing it would be like “having all your front teeth fall out,” he said.

As global trade has mounted, more goods are coming in from overseas, sometimes bringing with them the accidental cargo of destructive bugs and plants. An estimated 500 million plants are imported to the U.S. each year, and shipments through one plant inspection station doubled to 52,540 between 2004 and 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Today, about 30 new invasive insects are discovered annually in the U.S., up sharply over the last decade, the USDA says.

The yearly economic impact of invasive species in the U.S. is estimated at $133.6 billion, according to a study in Agricultural and Resource Economics Review in 2006. That includes the cost of control and prevention such as pesticides, inspection programs at ports and damage to crops.

An estimated 50,000 plant, animal and insect species have been introduced into the U.S. throughout history. Many plants are initially introduced as food or ornamentals, while animals are occasionally introduced to control other pests. The English sparrow was brought over to control the canker worm on crops in 1853. But by 1900, it was considered a pest because it introduced diseases.

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(AP)

Among the most damaging are weeds that affect crops or destroy animal habitats. The Asian purple loosestrife, for example, was introduced as an ornamental plant in the early 19th century and now invades some 284,000 acres per year in the U.S., crowding out native plant species that help support duck, geese and muskrat.

More recently, invasive species can be directly traced to increased trade. The Asian longhorned beetle hitched a ride on shipping pallets to Brooklyn, N.Y. from China, while others like the zebra mussel have arrived in the Great Lakes in the ballast water of ships from Europe, having spread there from Russia.

Once invasive species take hold in regions where they have no natural predators, it is often impossible to eradicate them. The emerald ash borer, a shiny green beetle from Asia believed to have arrived on packing material, is attacking ash trees. In the northeast, the Asian longhorned beetle has killed thousands of maple trees and other species.

The U.S. also has exported some unwelcome organisms. The gray squirrel, native to the eastern U.S., is causing havoc in Britain and Italy, where it is larger and more aggressive than the red squirrels it is displacing. It is believed that the gray squirrel was accidentally released by the London Zoo near the turn of the 20th century. The Colorado potato beetle, which attacks crops, turned up in Bordeaux, France, during World War I and has spread throughout Europe.

There are U.S. laws to prevent the import of invasive species, but they haven’t been significantly revised since 1918. Last year, the USDA proposed new regulations that would ban imports of certain plants pending analysis ensuring they wouldn’t host pests. It cited a 20-fold increase in seed imports in the last decade.

“Inspection is approaching, or may have reached, the limits of its operational efficacy,” a USDA statement said.

The adelgid is thought to have first arrived in Richmond, Va., in the 1950s on nursery plants from Japan. It has since reproduced to a population that has devastated hemlock stands in the eastern U.S. They have destroyed an estimated 95% of the hemlocks in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park.

A single insect produces 100 eggs twice a year. That means a single insect and its offspring can spawn a total of 10,000 insects within a year.

Experts say they can only prevent the death of select trees. Each of the hundreds of thousands of infested trees must be treated individually, with an insecticide that can be injected into the soil, into the tree or sprayed on the trunk. Several groups also are experimenting with releasing predator beetles.

“It’s labor intensive, but we are keeping them alive in those particular areas,” said John Perez, a biologist at the 70,000-acre national park called New River Gorge National River, near Fayetteville, West Va. In the park, 5% of trees are hemlocks.

A less direct approach is trying to educate the public who unwittingly transport invasive insects in firewood or nursery trees and can take steps to protect hemlocks on their property.

Will Blozan, an arborist in Asheville, N.C., surveyed and measured thousands of hemlocks between 2005 and 2007 throughout Southern Appalachia to document the species before it was killed off in vast areas. Some trees are 500 years old, and he identified the 15 tallest and 15 biggest in volume, all of which had become infested. In spite of their mass, only one survived, and that had been treated with an insecticide.

“I’ve gone from very, very rarely seeing adelgid in 2002 to utter destruction,” said Mr. Blozan, a former National Parks Service employee.

Hemlocks aren’t a major timber product outside of rustic fencing. But they are considered vital to tourism. And dead trees, which are hazardous, are costly to remove. Some scientists fear the loss of hemlocks could allow invasive species like the tree of heaven, native to China, to thrive. It could crowd out other species that are more vital to the state’s economy.

Forest products is second only to the coal industry in West Virginia, contributing about $4 billion to the state’s economy through taxes, revenue and roughly 30,000 jobs.

“The woolly adelgid is a flagship for a bigger problem,” said Rodney Bartgis, director of the Nature Conservancy in West Virginia.

Write to Kris Maher at kris.maher@wsj.com

One Response to The Vexing Bugs in the Global Trading System

  1. Don Mitchel says:

    As the US economy recovers with renewed global trade allowing for an ever increasing flow of foreign manufactured consumer goods being shipped into the US it should be noted in history, that despite historic legislation by the house of representatives in 2008 to curtail the destruction of our waters from ballast dumping, now in 2010 we still do not have any legislation insuring anything close to adequate because one Senator considered this legislation for pathogens and virus being dumped in our waters a states rights issue. As history should record that during this period of troubled economic times individual states realizing the lack of Federal action, have spent enormous amounts of money to try and protect our waters? It should also be noted that this administration despite knowing of the terrorist threat, and ecological, and human health problems has as yet failed to address the problem of ballast water and appears to be leaving it up to a military plan which follows the IMO, an organization of foreign countries, foreign companies, and foreign sea captains knowing that their organization has a terrible track record and has no way to insure enforcement. It is easy for this president to talk of the terrible problem of carbon emissions, as that can be related to the partisan issue of oil, but the carbon footprint and dirty water trail left by ships as they deliver fossil fuels and consumer goods from around the world would be non partisan. One can only wonder about the logic of transporting oil to China from South America to produce consumer goods, to ship to North America to keep our large retail employers shelves filled with foreign manufactured goods while Americans are out of work. Perhaps by promoting strong economies through trade treaties that favor green technologies with countries in the New World we could reduce the ecological destruction caused by the largest shippers and ship builders. (China) The Secretary of State is calling for a quick ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty. By ratifying the law of the Sea Treaty without first establishing a national ballast water policy, the problem is the provisions in the treaty mirror the IMO on ballast water and will continue ecological destruction of our countries environment as was the same course taken prior to 2001 the last time ballast water was addressed by a president on a national level. Ratification of this treaty first will make it much harder to later implement national ballast water policy. With a myriad of state laws that will be impossible to enforce, without an infrastructure and the Coast Guard working on their two decade plan industry knows it has won. This is evident by a recent article in The Maritime Executive magazine where Joseph Keefe states that the regulations drawn up by individual states are only a ” pipe dream”. http://www.maritime-executive.com/article/still-swimming-upstream-invasive-species-battle-anything-over/
    As my state failed to address water transported across state lines to our watersheds in fish movement with the support and guidance of then Senator Clinton, it should be noted that Governor Patterson was instrumental in establishing some of the toughest ballast water regulations in the country. Perhaps when he started this legislation in 2008 he realized that strong ballast water legislation by the next administration was up in the air and doubted if America would have any real change. Previously only legislation that was a hoax of protection had been considered by Senators from my state that contained language such as ” in so far as is practicable”. Obviously the president should acknowledge the governors of all states that have been prudent to protect our waters as they may be facing fiscal crisis, and have had to spend huge amounts of money in these though economic times to insure our protection since the Federal government has failed.

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