- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2004

RICHMOND (AP) — They range from voracious snakehead fish turning up in the Potomac River to a pond-choking weed discovered in Shenandoah County.

The cost nationally to eradicate, monitor and control alien invaders is estimated at $100 billion to $200 billion a year — “more than for all natural disasters combined,” Secretary of Natural Resources W. Tayloe Murphy Jr. said.

Aliens get to this country in nursery plants, aquarium supplies and ships’ ballast waters, among other ways. They tend to overwhelm native species because they are in a new world away from their normal predators and controls.

Most of the money being spent nationally to ward off invaders is coming from private industries, Mr. Murphy said, such as power plants fighting to keep clusters of zebra mussels from clogging their pipes along the Great Lakes.

In Virginia, “it’s always about money,” he said.

State biologists, for example, have not had the resources to battle zebra mussels, found in 2002 in a Prince William County quarry. Zebra mussels can displace native shellfish and upset natural food chains.

Ray Fernald, a biologist with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, said his agency has won federal grants totaling $400,000 and is looking for about $400,000 more from other sources.

The work is delicate and expensive. Scientists want to kill all the mussels, perhaps with specialized chemicals, without doing damage to nearby waters or wells, Mr. Fernald said.

In another case, biologists found a new threat, an invasive plant called giant water fern, in a Shenandoah pond this summer.

The Army Corps of Engineers calls giant water fern “possibly the world’s worst weed.” A native of Brazil, the weed apparently came to this country as an aquarium plant. It began showing up in the wild in the 1990s.

Giant water fern grows fast and covers ponds in thick mats, killing native plants.

The state has been unable to find $10,000 to $20,000 to get the herbicides and people to remove the weed, said Tom Smith, a state plant expert. “It’s very frustrating.”

The Virginia Invasive Species Council, a group of state agency leaders seeking ways to fight the invaders, met Thursday.

It was created in 2003 by the General Assembly to develop a plan for fighting invaders. But the legislature gave the group no staff and no money.

The Nature Conservancy, a conservation group, has pledged to provide $12,000 if the state matches that amount.

Alien invaders are best fought before they become firmly established. Once they spread widely they are nearly impossible to eradicate. That’s why biologists are working so frantically to find and destroy snakeheads, aggressive predators native to Southeast Asia.

An alien insect, the hemlock woolly adelgid, could virtually wipe out Virginia’s stately hemlock trees, said James D. Starr, director of forest management for the state Department of Forestry.

“Our native forest species are being replaced,” Mr. Starr said.

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