The European Parliament backed laws on Wednesday (16 January) to help prevent alien species of plants and wildlife from entering Europe and limit their spread in the event they do.
The new law seeks tougher border controls, to introduce an early warning system and to ensure rapid response and management of any invaders, such as tiger mosquitoes and demon shrimps.
Non-native plant and animal life are estimated to cost the European Union €12 billion a year in damage and control costs. They compete with European species for food and disrupt their habitats. Some, such as Japanese knotweed, damage buildings. Others are a threat to human health.
The tiger mosquito, for example, a native of Asia, transmitted dengue fever and was linked to an outbreak of the chikungunya virus, which causes fever and severe joint pain, in Italy in 2007.
Some species have been introduced deliberately, by farmers, for instance. Others arrive accidentally, such as zebra mussels, which attached themselves to ships from the Black Sea in the 19th century. They can choke water intake pipes at power plants.
The European Environment Agency says more than 10,000 alien species have gained a foothold in Europe and at least 1,500 are considered harmful.
Environmental campaigners welcomed the parliamentary vote in Strasbourg as bringing in the first major new piece of EU legislation on biodiversity since an EU law conserving habitats was adopted in 1992.
The vote was "very positive," BirdLife Europe's head of EU policy, Ariel Brunner, said, but some gaps remained, such as allowing ships to dump ballast water, which is a major source of non-native species, at ports.
The law will require the 28 national EU governments to work together to detect invasive species placed on a list of high concern and coordinate measures to limit the damage.
The European Commission's original proposal suggested limiting the list to 50 non-native species. But members of the European Parliament called for a more flexible approach so any new threats can be quickly included.
EU ministers are expected to hold a final vote on the law in May, which would take effect on 1 January, 2015. The list of species of EU-wide concern would be drawn up by 1 January 2016.
“The scientific community has long called for a more science-based approach to tackle invasive alien species in Europe, and we thus welcome EP’s strong stance on establishing a scientific forum,” said Piero Genovesi, chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Invasive Species Specialist Group. “Also, the design of the regulation is very much in line with the decisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) on invasive species, and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, which IUCN considers key tools for halting the global biodiversity loss,” added Genovesi, a senior scientist at Institute for Environmental Protection and Research.
"With globalisation and a more interconnected world, biological invasions will increase and the problem is far from under control. Only 11% out of more than 12,000 alien species recorded in Europe have an impact on biodiversity and ecosystems, but they are considered to be a serious factor in the loss of biodiversity – second only to habitat loss – and a major cause of species extinction," said Pavel Poc, a Czech MEP in the Socialists and Democrats parliamentary group and author of the EU legislature's report on the invasive alien species.
Martina Mlinaric, senior policy officer for biodiversity, water and soil at the European Environmental Bureau, said: “This agreement succeeded in fending off attempts to introduce the option for EU countries to be exempted from general bans.” She added: “The adopted IAS Regulation represents a vital step in addressing this problem in the EU, which is expected to be further exacerbated by climate change, habitat destruction and increased global trade and travel.”