What are invasive alien species (IAS)?
Alien species are plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms that have been transported across ecological barriers such as mountain ranges, or oceans as a result of human intervention, and have become established in an area outside their natural range.
About a quarter of these species are brought into Europe intentionally, for their beauty, usefulness or commercial value. Ornamental plants, species used as food or kept as pets are examples. But most of these species arrive by accident: about three-quarters of Europe's invasive alien species came in as contaminants of other goods, or hidden in transport vectors, or goods containers. There are currently more than 12,000 alien species in the European environment.
In their new environment, species may lack predators or be spared the limiting factors like food scarcity or competition with other species that normally keep them in check. Some of them spread rapidly and become invasive alien species (IAS), causing significant damage to biodiversity, human health or the economy. Roughly 10-15 % of alien species arriving in Europe eventually become invasive.
Species migrating in response to climate change are not considered alien species, as they are not crossing ecological barriers and they do not enter completely different environments. This is a natural process of adaptation.
Why should we address this problem?
Invasive alien species are a major cause of biodiversity loss in the EU and throughout the world. They can also cause significant damage to human health and the economy. Examples include the American bullfrog, which out-competes native frog species, allergy-causing ragweed and musk rats that damage infrastructure.
The financial implications are huge. Invasive alien species are estimated to cost EUR 12 billion annually in areas such as health care and animal health costs, crop yield losses, fish stock losses, damage to infrastructure, damage to the navigability of rivers, and damage to protected species.
As these species spread rapidly and more are entering the EU all the time, the costs are predicted to increase rapidly.
Why is EU action necessary? Can't we just rely on Member State action?
When an invasive alien species becomes established in one country of the EU, it can easily spread across borders to a neighbouring Member State.
This makes it important for Member States to act in a coordinated fashion. Action needs to be taken by all Member States on species that are of concern to the EU, to ensure that the measures are effective. If one Member State spends money to manage one species and others don't, that State constantly faces the possibility of re-invasion. Giant hogweed is a good illustration. This plant was brought into Europe for ornamental purposes and has now established and spread. Its sap can causes severe burns and dermatitis when skin is exposed to sunlight and it may even lead to blindness if it comes in contact with the eyes. This plant is currently costing € 1 million per year in medical treatment in Germany alone. Action in one Member State can, however, be undermined by lack of comparative action in a neighbouring state. The region of Wallonia (Belgium) is investing €0.5 million per year to eradicate giant hogweed, but France has no such programme. There will therefore be a permanent pressure of reinvasion along rivers entering the region from France.
Action at EU level also makes good economic sense. Member States can share information, cooperate in the development of risk assessments valid for the entire Union and cooperate with joint management actions. All of this will improve efficiency and lead to considerable savings.
The proposed Regulation takes account of existing national policies in an effort to use and expand on-going efforts to avoid forcing Member States to overhaul their systems completely.
Is new legislation necessary? Can't existing EU laws be extended to cover IAS?
A thorough assessment of existing legislation revealed that only a small number of invasive alien species are addressed by existing legislation, leaving considerable gaps.
Diseases and pests of animals and plants and their products are covered by animal health and plant health legislation1, but this only covers a small selection of invasive alien species. The plant health regime covers invertebrates and micro-organisms damaging plants, but it does not cover vertebrates that damage plants or plants that outcompete other plants. The animal health regime deals with diseases and vectors of diseases, but it does not cover animals that outcompete other animals.
EU rules on wildlife trade2 restrict the import of endangered species, and they include the import of seven invasive alien species. But these rules are restricted to traded species and only introduce trade bans, with no effect on the management of species once they are inside the EU, for example.
There are also EU rules on the use of alien species in aquaculture3, regulating the release of alien species used in aquaculture, but they leave other species, e.g. those used for sport fishing, unaddressed. Similarly, the rules on plant protection products and on biocides only address the intentional release of micro-organisms useful as plant protection products or for their biocidal properties.
The Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive, the Water Framework Directive and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive require the restoration of ecological conditions and refer to the need to take invasive alien species into consideration. However these general provisions have not been translated into coherent and comprehensive frameworks.
The problem is recognised at global level and major EU trade partners already have stringent policies in place, often focusing on prevention. Interesting examples are New Zealand, Australia, the US and Canada where strict border control and quarantine measures apply.
Does the Commission propose to address all alien species?
No. The proposed Regulation will initially cap the list of species of EU concern at 50 species, to focus efforts on the worst species and provide enough regulatory certainty for Member States to put in place the necessary structure to manage the problem. Species of Union concern will be ones whose negative impact requires concerted action at Union level. They might be causing damage all over the Union or only in a part of the Union, but the severity of these effects justifies calling on the assistance of the other EU members.
As this is a new policy area, a targeted and prioritised approach is being taken. This will enable the system to be developed gradually, giving the Commission and Member States the opportunity to learn from experience.
What are the main elements of the proposal?
The core of the proposal is a list of invasive alien species of Union concern, which the Commission will develop in cooperation with the Member States. Species listed as species of EU concern will be effectively banned, with some limited exceptions, and Member States will have to take measures to ensure these species are not introduced, traded, kept, bred, or released in the EU.
The proposal foresees also an early warning system. Member States will have to quickly warn the Commission and other Member States if they spot invasive alien species that have suddenly appeared on their territory so that quick action and early eradication can stop any further spread.
If a species included in the list of species of EU concern is already present in some Member States, these Member States will have to take measures to eradicate or manage them and ensure they are kept under control.
Since the majority of invasive alien species comes into Europe by accident, the proposed Regulation provides for measures to be taken to manage the routes through which species enter into the EU and spread. These measures include awareness campaigns and regulatory measures requiring, for example, checks to be performed on certain commodities.
How will a species be listed as an IAS of Union concern?
Decisions to list a species as IAS of Union concern will rely on evidence-based risk assessments using environmental and socio-economic information.
Most risk assessments will be performed by the Member States, using common criteria so that they are valid for the whole of the EU. A Standing Committee of experts nominated by the Member States will evaluate the risk assessment and decide on next steps. A number of these risk assessments are already available, performed for example by the European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organisation. The proposed system will ensure that the criteria make risk assessments valid for the whole of the EU, so that they only need to be performed once.
What about species that are not listed but that may potentially become IAS? Are any measures foreseen for those?
Member States may be worried about the presence or the risk of entry into their territory of species that are not yet listed as being of Union concern, but give an indication of being highly invasive. In such cases Member States may take emergency measures to address or stop the entry of the species in question while the assessment is performed.
If these measures have an effect on international trade or internal market rules, the Member States must notify them to the European Commission, which may extend them to the Union as a whole.
What can be done to stop Invasive Alien Species coming into Europe?
Intentional introductions form approximately one quarter of the problem in Europe. Border checks will be needed. For animals and plants the existing system of phytosanitary controls will be used to make sure that no IAS of EU concern are brought into Europe. Otherwise checks will be performed by customs authorities at the entry points of the Union.
But most of the problem species are brought into the EU by accident. Here it will be necessary to take measures focused on the pathways through which they enter the EU. For example, they may be contaminants of other goods, or be hidden in transport vectors or containers. Possible measures might include awareness-raising exercises to highlight the need to clean sports equipment or agricultural machinery before transporting it to another location, or regulatory measures.
How do you spot invasive alien species in the environment?
Member States will need to organise surveillance for IAS of Union concern. The system proposed is designed to maximise the use of existing structure and surveillance could be based on the existing surveillance and monitoring provisions of other existing EU legislation, namely the Birds and Habitats directives, the Water Framework Directive and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. Member States may also involve citizens. The European Environment Agency is exploring the role of citizen science in IAS surveillance through its Nature Watch programme.
Every time a new population of an IAS of Union concern is detected, this should be notified to the competent authorities within the Member State, which will in turn notify the European Commission. The detection will trigger the affected Member State to organise eradication actions and other Member States will be informed about the presence of the invasive alien species and the eradication measures.
What if an invasive species is already widespread?
For every species of Union concern that is already widespread, the affected Member States will organise eradication, containment or control measures, to keep the damage under control and limit further spread.
Will pet shops and owners of exotic pets be affected?
The restrictions may affect some traders or breeders, although their concerns will be duly considered when lists are drawn up, and in most cases an alternative non-invasive species is available. If an invasive alien animal deemed to be of Union concern is being kept as a pet, the owner will in any case be able to keep the animal until the end of its natural life. Under no circumstances would pets be destroyed.
The EU Outermost Regions and Overseas Countries and Territories are hotspots of biodiversity and are particularly vulnerable. How does the Commission approach this issue?
Outermost Regions host extremely valuable biological richness. These regions are part of the EU and as such EU legislation applies to them. The fact that some of these regions are located in other continents complicates the issue, with problematic species there being different from the species causing problems in mainland EU.
The proposal therefore foresees specific provisions for those regions: if a species listed as a species of Union concern is native to an Outermost Region, then the provisions for the list will not apply to that species in that region. Member States with Outermost Regions are asked to identify invasive alien species that are problematic in specific Outermost Regions.
Certain Member States already have measures in place to manage IAS. Is the new EU legislation going to interfere with such existing measures?
The system proposed has been designed to build upon existing actions at national level and the measures envisaged were designed by drawing extensively on the experiences at Member States level. The new rules will not interfere with existing measures, unless these measures are in conflict with the EU rules. In the event of conflict, EU rules would take precedence over national laws.
Where can I find more information about IAS?
Information about invasive alien species will be very important to ensure the issue is understood and that appropriate measures are taken. There is a wealth of information available on invasive alien species, and the proposal seeks to provide access to this knowledge through an information portal.
The starting point of such information exchange mechanisms is the European Alien Species Information Network, EASIN, which is expanding its scope to include aquatic and terrestrial species. EASIN allows access to different existing databases from a single interface, enabling the analysis of data thanks to data exploration services, mapping tools and similar applications. The system should gradually develop into a comprehensive tool supporting the correct application of the new rules.
Will this cost a lot?
Addressing the problem does have a cost, but the cost of leaving the problem unaddressed is far higher. Current expenditure on invasive alien species by the Member States and the EU is estimated at about €1.4 billion per year, of which €1.3 billion is spent on management of established species. Prioritising species of Union concern is expected to keep the worst damage under control, reducing management expenditure. Gains in efficiency will also be made by assessing risks at the European level, rather than duplicating work in Member States. So current expenditure in Member States will move towards a more focused and more preventive approach, and the expected additional cost will be minor in comparison with the benefit of avoiding an explosive cost increase.
Who will benefit from this?
For every invasive alien species that is prevented from entering or establishing into the Union, the benefits will be enormous, as subsequent increasing damage and control costs will be avoided. The proposal will prevent the escalation of current costs, which are estimated to be EUR 12 billion per year. The long term benefits will significantly outweigh the upfront costs.
The beneficiaries of the system proposed are businesses, citizens, public authorities and the environment. When it comes to businesses, primary producers in agriculture, animal husbandry, fisheries, aquaculture and forestry are often affected by invasive alien species and would benefit from measures to prevent them or keeping them under control. These species can negatively affect amenities, so businesses linked to tourism and recreational activities, which rely on pristine landscapes, clean water bodies and healthy ecosystems will also benefit. Society at large will gain as biodiversity loss is avoided and the ability of ecosystems to provide ecosystem services is safeguarded. Disease transmission and damage to property and cultural heritage will also be avoided.
How will this affect the aquaculture sector?
A regime already exists in the EU for addressing IAS in the aquaculture sector (Regulation EC 708/2007). The measures proposed today ensure that operators' legitimate commercial expectations to sell species already grown are preserved. For example, in the event that a species were to be listed as being of Union concern aquaculture farmers will have the right to continue commercially market their produce during a transitory period (see article 27 of the proposal).
How will IAS pathways be identified and addressed?
The proposal requires Member States to identify priority pathways. Once they do, they need to adopt action plans to address them, including a timetable for action and a description of the measures to be adopted.
As regards the important issue of Ballast Waters, Member States which identify this as a pathway requiring priority action will need to include in their action plans, on the basis of an analysis of the costs and benefits, measures of the International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships Ballast Water and Sediments (Article 11 of the proposal). Member States nevertheless keep the discretion to ratify this convention or not.
What can businesses do?
Businesses have an important role to play. The new Regulations will affect businesses and consumers as species are added to the list of species of Union concern. Traders will face some restrictions on the choice of species they can trade, and consumers will face some limitations in the type of species they can have and use. However, the assessment of impacts has shown that for most invasive alien species, non-invasive or native substitute species would be readily available.
Businesses can adopt good practices and play an important role in tackling invasive alien species. They can, for example:
- Consider potential invasiveness when trading alien species and removing potential invasive species from their catalogues
- Consider potential pathways of unintentional introductions when transporting goods over longer distances and taking measures to address those pathways
- Inform consumers about the potential invasive characteristics of species and the damage they could cause, about measures to avoid the reproduction and spread of alien species, and about measures to be taken when an alien species starts to reproduce and spread
- Organise supportive measures like take-back systems for unwanted species
- Help develop Codes of Conduct for specific sectors on invasive alien species.
What can citizens do?
Citizens can help too:
- Don't bring species home from holidays
- Don't release species into the environment if you can no longer keep them
- Do be careful not to transport species by accident
- Do remove plant species that start spreading out of control
- Join surveillance and early warning systems for species of Union concern, reporting sightings to the authorities
- Help manage species of Union concern