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Looming menace. Giant hogweed causes about €1 million a year of health problems in Germany.

Europe Proposes New Effort on Invasive Species

Staff Writer

The European Commission today announced a new proposal to deal with invasive species that are causing problems for member nations. Under the regulation, which must be approved by the Parliament and Council, risk assessments and scientific advice would be used to create a list of 50 targeted species. The ban would prevent their importation and sale, and nations would have to look for accidental arrivals. If a banned species is already established, all countries would need to keep it under control or try to eradicate it.

Some 12,000 alien organisms have been detected in Europe, and between 10% and 15% are thought to be invasive, causing as much as €12 billion per year of damage to agriculture, infrastructure, and health. (A somewhat dizzying video produced for the commission lays out the extent of the problem with invasive species, including time lapse photography that shows voracious insects gobbling plants.)

The European Union already has several laws designed to protect valuable animals and plants from invasive threats. But the plant health law doesn't prohibit herbivorous invaders, for example, while the animal health law doesn't offer protection from aliens that might outcompete native animals. "It's been largely patchwork until now," says Joe Hennon, spokesman for the comission. "We needed something at E.U. level that would fill the gaps."

Unlike the existing laws, the new regulation would provide a broad mandate to identify problematic species. Although the specific hazards that would merit blacklisting a species are not spelled out in the proposal, the regulation is designed to help protect native biodiversity, as well as reduce economic damages and health effects. The initial list of 50 species would be identified by stakeholders and member states. It's not clear yet if all nations would have to agree on a species. Another question is whether some types of species, such as exotic pets, will be exempted.

Although no funding is associated, the regulation could impact national budgets. That's because it is designed to deal with problems that extend past the borders of individual member states. For example, Germany is fighting an invasive plant called giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), which is native to Asia. Its sap can cause skin burns and blindness. France is not trying to eradicate the weed, so it poses a continual threat of reinvasion of Germany. If hogweed makes the list, France would be required to help fight the species.

Experts with BirdLife, an environmental advocacy group, welcomed the proposal but said it should go further. “[T]he proposed cap of 50 [invasive alien] species for action, with a review of that list possible only after 5 years, is a serious shortcoming in the proposal," Paul Walton said in a statement. Alistair Taylor added that the European Union should add a provision requiring people who deliberately release invaders into the wild to cover the cost of damages.

If the legislative process goes smoothly, the commission expects the regulation to come into force in 2016.

Posted in Europe, Plants & Animals