The introduction of alien species into the natural environment – a European concern


22 June 2008

Alfred E. baldacchino 

Alien species are not extraterrestrial species, as one could be led to believe by the word “alien”. From a biological perspective, alien species are living species of flora and fauna which, in an unnatural way, are introduced into a natural habitat where they have never occurred before, and as such are not indigenous to that area. Some of these species may be quite harmless. But others can be very dangerous from an ecological and an economical aspect. The introduction of alien species can be either accidental or intentional, but in both cases the species introduced can became invasive, competing with the local species for space and food and thus threatening the survival of indigenous species, sometimes even by predation. Invasive alien species (IAS) can be a serious threat to biodiversity and contribute to its loss. Aided by other environmental threats, IAS weaken the resilience of natural systems and reduce their ability to adapt to new conditions generated by climate change. An example of a local intentionally introduced floral species is the eucalyptus tree. The latest introduced faunal species recorded towards the end of 2007, and officially declared invasive, is the red palm weevil. This is but a brief and simple definition of an alien species. The ever-increasing international demand for exotic species, whether animal or plant, for commercial trade, aided by modern means of transportation, make it easier for species to establish themselves in countries where they have never previously been present. The increasing illegal trafficking in exotic wild species on a global scale (which is only second to illegal drug trafficking) further enhances the possibilities of species invading other countries. Having seen the negative impact of IAS, the international community introduced legislation to control them. Below is a very brief general look at some of this legislation and its provisions and obligations, which is aimed at controlling introduced aliens species, and to which the signatories have committed themselves.

Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) The Convention on Biological Diversity, which was signed at Rio de Janeiro on 5 June 1992, is the most recent international convention and embraces the most modern scientific principles in the conservation of biological diversity. It lays down measures regarding the conservation of species and the contracting parties will, as far as possible and as appropriate, achieve this by establishing or maintaining the means to regulate, manage or control the risks associated with the use and release of living modified organisms resulting from biotechnology that are likely to have an adverse environmental impact that could affect the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account the risk to human health. Furthermore, the signatories are also obliged to prevent the introduction of, see to the control of or the eradication of those alien species that threaten ecosystems, habitats or species. Malta became a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity on 29 December 2000.

Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern)  was signed in Bern on 19 October 1979 under the auspices of the Council of Europe. The signatories to this convention are obliged to undertake strict control of the introduction of non-native species. Malta became a signatory to this convention on 26 November 1993.

Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (Bonn) The United Nations Environment Programme is the Secretariat of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. The signatories to this convention, which came into force in 1985, agree to endeavour – to the extent that is feasible and appropriate – to prevent, reduce or control factors that are endangering or are likely to further endanger the species listed in an annex of the convention. Signatories are also obliged to strictly control the introduction of, or control or elimination of, already introduced exotic species. Malta became a signatory to this convention on 13 February 2001.

United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) UNCLOS also addresses the protection and preservation of the marine environment. The signatories to this convention, which came into force in 1994, are to take all measures necessary to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment resulting from the use of technologies under their jurisdiction or control, or the intentional or accidental introduction of species, alien or new, to a particular part of the marine environment, which may cause significant and harmful changes thereto. The cleaning of ships’ hulls and the ballast water carried by ships are the main contributors to such alien introduced species. Malta became a signatory to this convention on 25 May 1993.

EU Council Directive 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992 on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora    This European Union legislation also addresses the issue of the introduction of alien species with regard to the conservation of European natural habitats and wild species of flora and fauna. In implementing the provisions of this Directive, also referred to as the Habitats Directive, member states are to ensure that the deliberate introduction into the wild of any species that is not native to their territory is regulated so as not to prejudice natural habitats within their natural range or the wild native fauna and flora and, if they consider it necessary, prohibit such introduction into their country. This Directive became applicable to Malta when it joined the European Union on 1 May 2004. The European Union also has other decisions and regulations that support and encourage member states to honour the international conventions that incorporate such principles. These include, amongst others, the above-mentioned conventions. It has to be admitted that such concepts are relatively new to all the social entities in the Maltese Islands, where a lot still has to be done so that they can be understood, accepted and implemented. Nevertheless, these are Malta’s legal obligations under the international treaties to which Malta is a contracting party. aebaldacchino@gmail.com

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