WASHINGTON — Ships on the St. Lawrence Seaway receive much of the blame for bringing pests from foreign lands into the Great Lakes waterway, but this week environmental groups are turning to another culprit: pets gone bad.
The shipment of exotic fish and other aquatic life threatens the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes ecosystems about as much as any ship, say advocates for tighter controls on invasive species. They are spending two days this week lobbying lawmakers to pass legislation requiring more scrutiny of animals and plants proposed for shipment into the United States.
Federal regulations require almost no screening of exotic animals or plants shipped into the country, said Marc Gaden, communications director the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission, a U.S.-Canadian board that aims to protect the fishing industry on the lakes and St. Lawrence River. The result is that species can escape from captivity or from a controlled environment, as can happen in the pet-fish trade, for instance, he said, that occurred with the Asian carp that is now threatening to enter the Great Lakes through the Chicago Sanitary Canal.
"That's a huge problem," Mr. Gaden said.
A 1900 law called the Lacey Act prohibits the interstate shipment of injurious species but the term is not well-defined, Mr. Gaden said. By the time a species is determined to be injurious, it has already spread and is doing harm — and on the Great Lakes, that generally means it is beyond eradication.
The law, amended several times, was initially meant to protect game and wild birds by cracking down on poaching. It calls for penalties including fines and jail.
"The problem with the Lacey Act is, it's reactive," Mr. Gaden said. On the other hand, he said, it has one benefit and is worth expanding.
"It's a tremendously important law enforcement tool. It is a deterrent to unscrupulous people who will move around species like Asian carp," he said.
The Asian carp came to the United States as a friend of fish farmers who believed it would help clean their facilities of algae. But it escaped from fish farms during flooding and has been spreading up the Mississippi River. It grows to as long as three feet and robs native species of food.
Among the groups pressing lawmakers is Save the River, the Clayton environmental group, whose representatives met with staffers for Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, Tuesday and plan to make similar visits to the offices of Sens. Kirsten E. Gillibrand and Charles E. Schumer, Democrats of New York, today.
"It's not the whole story, but it's a piece of the puzzle," said Save the River Executive Director Jennifer Caddick.
Groups are counting on Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., for help, as his state has persistent problems with escapes of tropical creatures. They also are looking to Del. Madeleine Bordallo, D-Guam, Mr. Gaden said.
Mr. Schumer and Mrs. Gillibrand last year co-sponsored legislation to block the import of Asian carp, which President Barack Obama signed into law.