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U.S. Customs agent keeps bad bugs out of the country

She boards incoming ships in search of invasive species.

September 21, 2008|Dan Catchpole | Associated Press

SEATTLE — Alishia Beckham uses a hand-mirror and a flashlight to defend the United States from foreign invaders.

Working aboard ships three football fields long that arrive in Seattle's bustling port stacked with truck-sized cargo containers, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agricultural specialist scours for bugs, plants or pathogens that could lay waste to native species.

She checks around door frames, pipes, lifeboat winches and other nooks where an Asian gypsy moth might have laid its eggs.

Invasive species can quickly become ecological and economical disasters. The emerald ash borer beetle has killed more than 30 million ash trees since it was detected in North America in 2002. European gypsy moths defoliate millions of forested acres every year from North Carolina to Wisconsin to Maine.

"There are so many places on a ship, it could literally take all day if you inspected every inch of the ship," Beckham said. "We do what we can."

Beckham carries a backpack full of tools: cards illustrating the moth's life stages, binoculars to inspect areas of the ship she can't reach, a paint scraper to pry off any egg masses and a plastic container with a dead adult male and an egg mass to show crew members what she's looking for.

Most crews are very cooperative and want to know what to look for, Beckham says.

The Asian gypsy moth, like its European cousin, is a rapacious leaf-eater, but it eats a wider variety of trees. Unlike the flightless European female, the Asian female can fly up to 25 miles before laying its eggs, meaning it could quickly spread across the country.

In early August, Beckham stepped aboard a ship in Seattle plastered with more than 100 Asian gypsy moth egg masses, each containing up to 1,000 eggs.

Beckham ordered the ship escorted out of U.S. territorial waters immediately by the Coast Guard before the eggs started hatching.

"If there are a hundred egg masses and they start hatching, we can't send the ship through Puget Sound, because there are so many islands the caterpillars could land on," she said.

After hatching, the caterpillars "balloon," letting out silken threads that the wind catches. They can travel up to five miles depending on conditions.

"Once the larvae start ballooning, we're in trouble," said Eric Johnson, the Customs Service's agriculture chief for the Seattle area. He said that if they hatched at a Washington port, they could infest the forest of the Cascade Range, about 30 miles away, within five years.

The federal government spends more than $1.3 billion every year on detecting, eradicating and controlling invasive species, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Very few nonnative species become invasive, but a single invasive species can cause millions of dollars in damage. Zebra mussels annually cause more than $5 million in damage in the Great Lakes. Cornell University researchers estimated in 2004 that invasive species cost the U.S. economy almost $120 billion each year.

The rise in international trade has increased the opportunities for invasive species to hitchhike into the U.S.

"A continued influx of invasive species is going to be in our future," said Jim Marra, an entomologist for Washington state's Department of Agriculture.

Russia and Japan monitor Asian gypsy moths and share the information with U.S. officials, who use it to identify high-risk ports. The moth was detected this year in a port in China, which does not collect or share such information yet, according to Johnson.

Infestations can prompt bans on a country's exports.

"It might be in the best interest of a foreign country to not disclose that a major, major port is infested," Beckham said. "But we've had very good relationships with foreign countries, from my experience. But who's to say?"

The myriad international and regional regulations covering invasive species and trade are imperfect. One of Beckham's colleagues found an Asian long-horned beetle larva burrowed into a wood shipping pallet. The wood was stamped the seal of the International Plant Protection Convention, meaning it should have been heat-treated, which would have prevented the larva from getting into the wood.

Even an incoming vessel's food can harbor pests, such as fruit flies, Beckham said. A ship's food is often a testament to its worldwide voyages. Inspecting one ship recently, she found zucchini from Hong Kong, lemons from Argentina, melon from the U.S., apples from New Zealand, Spanish beef and Dutch poultry.

To protect its agriculture industry, California requires ships to lock up food from certain countries while in port, Beckham said.

Outside San Francisco, state and federal officials are fighting the light brown apple moth. It has caused crop losses of up to 20% in New Zealand, said John Sacks, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Plant Protection and Quarantine division. For California, that could mean losses between $680 million and $2.7 billion if the moth becomes established.

Once within the U.S., invasive species can move around on cars, plants, motor boats, even on mud-caked shoes.

Detection, eradication and control programs are used to keep them in check.

Tools range from pesticide sprays to breeding sterile male insects.

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