Lack of oversight of a major international industry is putting our nation’s homeland security at great risk, according to a new book written by an economist at Rochester Institute of Technology. Along with crude oil, sugar and rubber, some cargo ships entering United States seaports also may be carrying dangerous stowaways—invasive animal and plant species capable of causing destruction to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Amitrajeet Batabyal is an expert on the economic impacts of invasive species and in his latest book, Essays in the Economics of Invasive Species Management, he attacks invasive species related problems and offers analyses concerning their management. He is concerned that only 5 percent of all container cargo actually gets inspected at U.S. seaports and invasive species settling and breeding in the ship’s ballast water are passing through, frequently undetected. Batabyal cites one devastating example: snakes found in shipping transport containers entering Guam resulted in 12 of Guam’s bird species becoming extinct.
“Not only do invasive species have a detrimental impact on our economy and the environment, there are serious issues when it comes to our homeland security,” said Batabyal, the Arthur J. Gosnell Professor of Economics in RIT’s College of Liberal Arts. “These species could pose a biological and national security threat. Terrorists who want to do damage to the U.S. could, in principle, use invasive species as biological terror agents.”
While the existence of invasive species isn’t new, Batabyal is one of the first economics researchers to partner with ecologists and biologists to determine the economic and environmental impact of species such as the Russian wheat aphid, purple thistle or zebra mussel.
“One prediction in terms of the future of invasive species management is that we need significantly better agreements among countries that engage in international trade when the goods that we’re trading are moving on ships,” said Batabyal. “We must have better protocols for the management of unintentionally introduced invasive species. Although inspectors check the conditions under which cargo is loaded on ships before it leaves many ports, such tasks are not undertaken often enough due to the high economic costs associated with careful inspections.”
Batabyal admits that solutions to preventing invasive species are often based on decision making under uncertainty and this is why it’s important to connect with a variety of experts.
“There are many questions when it comes to invasive species management,” said Batabyal. “For instance, should regulatory agencies attempt to prevent invasive species from gaining a foothold in a new habitat, or should they merely control them? If we choose to prevent them, this means that regulatory agencies must enforce strict inspection regulations on ships entering U.S. seaports. Needless to say, this would be extremely expensive and difficult to implement. If we choose only to control invasive species, this means that we are giving them a chance to get established—and we then need to figure out a way to get rid of them.”
Batabyal believes that invasive species management is a policy issue that must be addressed across state governments, from the mid-West where the Asian carp is wreaking havoc, to the Great Lake states where the zebra mussel is a menacing threat.
“Invasive species management is a field that is getting a lot of attention but doesn’t have a lot of economics research behind it,” he added. “But there is so much opportunity for high-quality theoretical modeling to study this problem and determine viable solutions. That’s why I’m so passionate about this research.”