Invasive alien species: The biodiversity time bomb is ticking!

22 February 2013 | News story

Invasive Alien Species (IAS) poses a significant threat to native biodiversity in Europe, as well as to our economy and health. They cause some 12.5 billion Euro worth of damage each year in the European Union alone. On 21 February, BirdLife and IUCN co-hosted an event in the European Parliament in Brussels to shed some light on this ticking time bomb ahead of the EU legislative proposal that is expected in March. The event was hosted by MEP Poc, Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats (S&D) and supported by the European Habitats Forum.

One of the better known examples of the economic damages caused by an IAS is the case of the American Comb jellyfish in the Black Sea. The jellyfish arrived in the ballast water on ships from the American Atlantic coast. With no enemies in their new home, the jellies propagated at an alarming rate. The invasion contributed to the near collapse of Black Sea commercial fisheries within a few years and was a main contributor to the loss of 150,000 fishing jobs as a direct effect of the reduction of anchovies, explained ten Brink from the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP).

European Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Janez Potočnik stated in his opening address that the root of the problem is related to the effects of globalisation with an increase in travel and trade around the globe. The rapid increase of economic globalisation has corresponded to an increase of IAS worldwide according to Dr Piero Genovesi, Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA) and Chair of IUCN SSC Specialist Group on Invasive Alien Species.

About 10-15% of all alien species in Europe are indeed invasive, meaning that they are non-native to an area and establish, spread and cause harm to the native biodiversity and also to human health and our ecosystem services, as underlined by Ladislav Miko from the Directorate General for Health and Consumers of the European Commission. Particularly, the Ragweed pollen cause severe allergy problems for a large part of the European population and the associated medical costs amount to hundreds of millions of euro. ”Invasive Alien Species know no boundaries”, the Commissioner stated and suggested that Europe needs guiding principles to solve the problem.

A coordinated action to limit the reproduction in particular areas of these invasive species would be a first step required in the upcoming EU legislative instrument. Considering the serious impact that the IAS have on Member States, a risk-based approach is recommended. Pia Bucella from the Directorate-General for the Environment of the European Commission, leading the formulation of the EU instrument, expressed the need to focus efforts on prevention rather than reaction with bans on particular species, thus preventing them from entering the EU. Developing existing systems, such as the border controls, would also be a way of maximising the efficiency of the legislation.

Presenting Ireland’s efforts, Joe Caffrey of Inland Fisheries Ireland expressed the country’s full commitment to addressing IAS.

Climate change was noted as having a major impact on how the situation will develop, not just in the future but right now, with certain species thriving in new areas of the globe because of increased temperatures and other beneficial conditions brought by climate change. Dr Paul Walton, Head of Habitats and Species at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), representing BirdLife and the European Habitats Forum (EHF) at the event, said that “despite the action taken, the problem is still getting worse and climate change only makes it easier for IAS to settle.”

IUCN Director General Julia Marton-Lefèvre closed the meeting by stressing the importance of communicating IAS to the general public “making the public feel like citizen scientists”, meaning that people can help detect invasions and take simple actions in their lives to reduce these.

The event coincided with the launch of the report The impacts of invasive alien species in Europe by the European Environment Agency which was compiled in cooperation with IUCN scientists. The report lists 28 invasive species and presents their impact on the economy, health and biodiversity.

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Mediterranean landscape