Snakeheads and Lionfish and Pythons…Oh My! The Risks Associated with the Trade in Live Animals

One fish, two ways. A delicacy in China, a killer in the United States.

Liz Robbins and Jeffrey Singer in the NYT

On Tuesday, the New York Times published an article about a Brooklyn man, Yong Hao Wu, who is under arrest for allegedly importing thousands of live northern snakeheads (Channa argus) for his New York-based business (Howei Trading Company). It has been illegal to import snakeheads into the United States since 2002 given the highly invasive nature of the species and the destruction it can cause to ecosystems into which it is released. According to the New York Times story, Wu has been charged with felony commercialization of wildlife and importing fish dangerous to indigenous fish populations. He could spend up to four years in prison if he is convicted.

The snakehead is an invasive species that has captured a lot of headlines, but it’s far from the only invader that has made its way to U.S. ecosystems secondary to trade. In recent years, we have heard a lot about lionfish in the Atlantic, pythons in the everglades, koi in the Mississippi, and kudzu plants in the Southeast. The story of invasive species is one that ought to give us pause. In fact, we should be downright worried–even fearful. The real corker, though, is that many of these invasive species got here legally.

Yet we still do a horrible job at regulating the trade in live animals.

So what can be done? Obviously better enforcement of existing laws would help, but with so many species being traded across so many industries, it is difficult to imagine the requisite species identification skills of a truly effective U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer responsible for being the gatekeeper at a port of entry. New York’s Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY25) believes the Invasive Fish and Wildlife Prevention Act (H.R. 996) may be the answer. She introduced the bill last month, and it was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources: Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs where it currently resides. The bill is similar to previous bills that have failed to become law (e.g., H.R. 5864 and S. 3606 in the 112th Congress). Many in trade (especially the pet trade) oppose the Bill based largely on its approach of creating a so-called “white list” of animals that could be imported. Opponents of the Bill have called it a “guilty until proven innocent” approach.

The trouble, of course, is that with more and more invasive species spreading into ecosystems where they don’t belong and creating real environmental damage and economic hardship, it’s increasingly hard to defend legal importation and sale of species that, when released either accidentally or intentionally, can cause such devastation. This is especially the case when purchasing these animals requires, in most cases, no special licenses, permits or any proof that the purchaser is prepared to appropriately care for and contain the animal. While there have been some initiatives for trade to voluntarily “blacklist” some species, none of those efforts have been successful to date.

Of course making something illegal doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, as the arrest of Mr. Wu demonstrates. When a lucrative black market exists, there will always be those who will attempt to supply it. Nonetheless, one can certainly see how compelling it might be to limit the number of legally imported animals so as to at least make the job at the port of entry an easier one.

The bottom line is that importing any live animal or plant has its attendant risks. We must understand to what level of risk we are willing to expose ourselves and for what outcome. For example, importing a potentially invasive species for the purposes of invaluable medical research or to initiate a species survival program in captivity may prove a more acceptable risk than the import of an animal for a pet or culinary delight.

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About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
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One Response to Snakeheads and Lionfish and Pythons…Oh My! The Risks Associated with the Trade in Live Animals

  1. Pingback: Lionfish Proposed Final Rules Set for Vote Today in Florida | Good Catch Blog

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