By james foster
Times & Transcript Staff
Their names can sound ominous, such as the dog-strangling vine, or downright appealing, like the flowering rush.
But the most common name given invasive species in New Brunswick is “pest,” or at least that’s the most common word for them that can be used in a family newspaper.
Alien invasive plants and animals are now considered by many groups to be the second biggest threat to New Brunswick’s ecological integrity, trailing only habitat loss.
They out-compete native plants and animals, disrupt native species that rely on other native species, and most often they propagate like crazy. And once they’re established, they are exceedingly expensive and difficult, if not impossible, to get rid of.
“We really need to get up front on the prevention side of it,” said Paula Noel, program manager for the Nature Conservancy of Canada in New Brunswick.
“Once that genie is out of the bottle, your work has just gotten a lot harder.”
From fish to plants to animals to micro-organisms, the introduction of alien invasive species has already cut agricultural production, destroyed some of the natural foods of native wildlife, harmed valuable recreational opportunities like boating and fishing, and physically harmed humans and animals through their toxicity.
The number of new foreign species found in New Brunswick is on the rise, and the range of longer-standing species that don’t belong here is expanding.
For a simple example of how these species spread, look no further than the suet bird feeder outside your window. Those pesky European starlings that scare off songbirds are the direct descendants of 100 birds released into New York’s Central Park in the 1890s by a group who thought it would be a good idea to introduce all of the birds mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. They now number about 200 million and have displaced many native species of cavity-nesting birds.
For the past three years, government agencies and fisheries groups have spent many thousands of dollars trying to eradicate smallmouth bass from the headwaters of the Miramichi River system, fish that were put there by human hands. If the bass manage to get out of that lake and into the nearby Miramichi River system, they could threaten the Atlantic salmon recreational fishery that pumps millions of dollars into the local economies every spring, summer and fall. The bass could out-compete the salmon for food and habitat, or even prey on young salmon.
All of this expense and trouble could have been avoided with an ounce of prevention.
“With the spread of these species all over New Brunswick, it should be getting a lot of attention,” said Kathryn Collet, a fish biologist with the provincial Department of Natural Resources.
But it isn’t getting a lot of attention. Most New Brunswickers wouldn’t know an alien species if it bit them.
A multidisciplinary group has come together to help bring the issue to the fore, known as the New Brunswick Invasive Species Council. The group brings together biologists, game and fish managers, foresters, conservationists and more, including both senior levels of government, to promote the issue and become the lead agency tackling the problem.
Their web site at nbisc.ca offers information on invasive species, things you can do to prevent spreading them further around the province and how to report one if you see it.
Many invaders are not obvious. In fact, many are downright pretty, like the purple loosestrife, whose attractive light-purple flowers are now a common sight on many New Brunswick wetlands. It’s such an attractive plant that it’s hard to believe that it will quickly take over wetlands, choking out native plants and leading to declines in wetland birds and other fauna. It has been known to render some boating areas almost unnavigable and it’s almost impossible to get rid off, with most common methods of plant eradication only serving to spread its seeds faster and further.
The giant hogweed is a plant that is turning up in New Brunswick backyards. Its sap interacts with sunlight to burn your skin and can even cause blindness.
Many small lakes used to have a thriving trout population but the introduction of voracious pickerel, without doubt by human hands, has conspired with hook-and-take fishermen to drastically cut the trout population to the point where it is now unlikely to recover without intervention on a number of ponds.
And it’s not just invasive plants and alien fish that are the issue. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has been trying to stymie the spread of the brown spruce longhorn beetle since it first showed up in Halifax in the early 2000s. In 2011, the highly destructive bug showed up in Kouchibouguac National Park in a load of someone’s firewood. The potential damage to the province’s key forestry industry is incalculable over time, and now campers are prohibited from bringing their own firewood into the park — and everyone is strongly discouraged from transporting any firewood, anywhere, at any time in the province.
As with firewood, it is usually via human hands that invasive species are spread around.
Didymo, or “rock snot,” is spreading throughout the Restigouche River system where it had never been seen before. It is a choking slime that can cover large expanses of rivers and is thought to travel on fishermen’s waders and fishing lines. It’s one of the reasons why fishermen are urged to check for and remove any algae they see on any equipment when they leave a river and to get rid of it, to clean and then dry all equipment, boats included, for lengthy periods before moving to another river system. Even one cell of rock snot, invisible to the eye, is enough to help it spread.
But Collet and Noel stress that combating alien species is everyone’s duty, not just outdoors people.
The council’s website offers a helpful guide to some of the worst offenders in this province as well as important information on those species. There is also a reporting mechanism on their site where you can easily send in information and photos of anything suspicious that you’ve found.
“People are really using it,” Noel said.
“If people can become aware that invasive species are a problem, then they will help to prevent spreading them. It is potentially very damaging.”