Bill to combat Alaska’s invasive species falls short in Legislature

Despite wide consensus about the environmental threat, the bill died without a Senate floor vote

Tobias Schwoerer pulls invasive elodea from lake water while kneeling on the pontoon of a floatplane. The photo was taken at Alexander Lake, a site in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough that became overgrown with the invasive plant. Photo by Kristin Dunker/Alaska Department of Fish and Game

The Alaska Beacon

Invasive species, according to wide consensus in Alaska, pose big threats to native fish, plants, terrestrial animals and even people’s safety and thus merit some vigorous preventive and response actions.

Nevertheless, a seemingly popular bill that would have set up a system to coordinate those actions died without final passage in the Alaska Legislature.

The measure, House Bill 54, would have established an Invasive Species Council within the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to coordinate work done by state, federal, tribal and local agencies and other entities. The council, modeled on similar organizations established in Washington state and elsewhere, would have helped find and funnel grants and managed an invasive species response fund within the state general fund. The council would prepare strategic plans examining impacts and setting priorities for action; those plans would be presented to the Legislature every other year. The bill also would have authorized a voluntary decal-sale program aimed at boosting public education and engagement.

The bill, which was sponsored by the House Fisheries Committee, passed in the House on Feb. 17 by a 33-2 vote. But it was among about a dozen bills that failed to move before the May 19 adjournment from the Senate Finances Committee to the Senate floor.

“Unfortunately, it was a time issue,” said Rep. Geran Tarr, the Anchorage Democrat who shepherded the bill on behalf of the fisheries committee. “It’s really hard to watch that evaporate because it was so close to being done.”

Invasive species are brought to Alaska by tourists’ vehicles or small boats, carried in the ballast water of larger commercial ships or otherwise spread by human actions.

A problem in Alaska’s lakes

A strand of elodea, an invasive freshwater plant that has proliferated in many Alaska lakes, is held by scientist Tobias Schwoerer. Photo by Tobias Schwoerer

Some of the most persistent invasive species in Alaska have accumulated in lakes.

One is elodea, a freshwater plant popular with aquarium owners. Also known as waterweed, it grows quickly and can be spread from lake to lake by contact with floatplanes. It poses hazards to those planes, too, because they can become entangled in the thick vegetation.

Elodea, when it spreads, can damage fish habitat by crowding out native species and by making water bodies lack dissolved oxygen. A study led by Tobias Schwoerer, now with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, estimated that elodea-caused losses to the salmon industry would average $159 million a year if the plant is not controlled.

Another lake invader is northern pike, which is natural in most parts of Alaska but not in the Southcentral region that encompasses Anchorage. Having been introduced to Anchorage-area lakes, northern pike have devoured native fish like salmon and rainbow trout.

A dual threat

The European green crab, as pictured here, is an inasive species that threatens native crf populations. European green crabs have been found as far north as British Columbia but have not yet been detected in Alaska. Photo by Emily Grason/Washington Sea Grant

Climate change poses dual invasive threats, scientists say. Warmer temperatures enable southern species to move north, and increased Arctic vessel traffic made possible by sea-ice loss increases the opportunities for hitchhiking species to be carried north.

Invasives are of special concern in the Bering Sea, site of some of the nation’s biggest commercial seafood harvests. A 2017 study led by the University of Alaska Anchorage projected that ongoing warming will significantly expand the Bering Sea territory that is suitable for year-round residency of problem invasive species that could crowd out native species.

There are already several invasive species programs within federal, state and local agencies and entities. A public-private network, the Alaska Invasive Species Partnership, does some of the coordination and education duties envisioned in HB 54.

But creation of a formal Invasive Species Council would have elevated the issue and provided more tools for prevention and response, said Tammy Davis, invasive species coordinator for the Department of Fish and Game.

While the partnership does good work — “If we don’t do it, it’s not going to get done,” she said — it is a volunteer network with participants who have to carve out time from their official duties.

The Alaska Invasive Species Partnership has gone on record in support of HB 54. “Invasive species are marching northward, whether by ocean currents, commercial transport, or people. An invasive species council with state commissioner level accountability and engagement by agencies, industries, researchers, managers, and concerned stakeholders, will enable planning and coordination to prevent and manage invasive species problems that are on our doorstep or already present in Alaska,” said an April 19 letter to the Senate Finance Committee from Danielle Verna, the partnership’s vice chair.

Rats among the most dangerous

Of the non-native species that are already in Alaska, one of the most dangerous was introduced more than 200 years ago: rats in the Aleutian Islands.

The first rats swam to Alaska from a Japanese sailing ship that wrecked in the western Aleutians in the late 1700s. Since then, rats have devastated native bird populations there and on other Alaska islands, as they have on islands around the world, where bird species evolved without any defenses against land predators. That first rat-infested island, which is now part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, was long named Rat Island.

In 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its project partners, Island Conservation and the Nature Conservancy, mounted a $2.5 million project that bombarded Rat Island with rat poison. It was the largest rat-eradication project ever conducted in the Northern Hemisphere; with the rats gone and bird populations on their way to recovery, the island officially regained its traditional pre-rat name, Hawadax.

Response to invasives is more difficult than preventing their arrival, Tarr said. But getting policymakers to take preventive action can be a challenge, she said: “We are much more in the mode of crisis response,” she said.

In the case of HB 54, some lawmakers expressed concerns about funding – either the potential for added costs to the state or the possibility that money intended to address invasive species would, as part of the general fund, be vulnerable to diversion for other uses. But the bill’s provisions for grant funding and decal sales addressed those concerns, Tarr said.

This is not the first time that invasive species legislation failed to pass the state Legislature, despite apparent widespread support.

In 2012, a bill sponsored by then-Rep. Paul Seaton of Homer would have established a rapid-response system to eradicate invasive aquatic species. That bill never reached a final vote. A subsequent bill, also sponsored by Seaton and with co-sponsors who included Tarr, expanded a bit on the previous bill to include an invasive-response fund, also died at the end of the 2014 session. Yet another Seaton-sponsored bill passed the House in 2016 but stalled in the Senate. Tarr introduced another bill in 2017 that passed the House in 2018 but died in the Senate.

Tarr said she will try to push for another bill in the future.

“It’ll be just as important to work on invasive species in January as it is now,” she said.