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Risks for New Arctic Invasives Rising, Eradication Plans Lacking

The legacy of the king crab, which Soviet Union scientists introduced to the area during the 1960s, shows how even just detecting that a species is an ecological problem can take a long time.

Effective eradication techniques and robust monitoring of invasive species in High North waters are still elusive to some of the researchers studying them.

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The risk of invasive marine organisms coming to the High North on the rising number of ships in the region is growing as Arctic waters warm. 

But even with heightened risks, effective eradication techniques and robust monitoring in these waters are still elusive to some of the researchers studying these species. 

“Preventing the introduction of potentially invasive species is the best management option given that once invasive species become established they are rarely possible to eradicate,” said Chris Ware, who has conducted research on invasive species in Svalbard with the Tromsø University Museum, in an email from Australia.

Monitoring new invasive species in the Arctic is also challenging because fieldwork is typically conducted during the summer and there is still a significant need for underwater surveying, Ware said. 

The high costs of vessels and ship time are also an issue. 

The Institute of Marine Research is in charge of monitoring marine species in the area and while the risk for invasive species is growing, funding for monitoring has not significantly grown, said Jan Sundet, a senior researcher at the institute, to the BarentsObserver. 

He said government funding for surveying increases when the institute can prove that a species is having a serious economic impact on the country, which is difficult to do.

The legacy of the king crab, which Soviet Union scientists introduced to the area during the 1960s, shows how even just detecting that a species is an ecological problem can take a long time. 

During the early 1990s, fishermen, managers and many scientists viewed the king crab as primarily a valuable fishing resource.

But in 2000, scientists like Sundet began to publicly emphasize that the king crab was wreaking havoc on benthic organisms at the bottom of the ocean, denting the food chain and causing some other species to disappear, he said. 

These number of species in the High North like the king crab is likely to grow in the coming years.  

Melting Arctic ice is likely to bring new invasive organisms from increased ship traffic on the Northern Sea Route and increased interest in newly available minerals and resources, according to a May study by researchers from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. 

“That is linking two ecosystems where you have a possibility for dispersal of species from the Pacific, most likely, to the Arctic, to the Atlantic,” said Gunnar Sander, an Arctic sea ice researcher with the Norwegian Polar Institute, to the BarentsObserver. 

Two of the main ways invasive organisms can enter the Arctic on ships is through ballast water tanks and biofouling, which is when organisms accumulate on the wet surfaces of a ship’s hull. 

The International Maritime Organization currently recommends ships to exchange ballast waters by replacing waters from coastal areas with open ocean water.The practice is mandatory in the United States but voluntary in most countries. 

The practice aims to prevent the exchange of invasive species from one coastal area to another, but some studies have shown that some organisms can survive an exchange.

During 2011, Ware was a part of a Svalbard-based study called “Arctic Stowaways,” which was the first to focus on shipping as a pathway for species introduction in the European Arctic. The study found that organisms collected in the middle of the ocean can adapt to the conditions near Svalbard.

The study also found that on commercial ships and recreational vessels, slow speeds and long layovers can contribute to increased biofouling. 

Some shippers use antifouling paint but the paint can age and it is still entirely effective even when the coat is new. 

Increased shipping in the High North is not the sole factor making conditions ripe for new invasive species. 

The “Arctic Stowaways” study found that ocean warming is increasing the climate similarity of Svalbard to other ports around the world and making adaptation to northern water easier for more species. 

While High North conditions are becoming more conducive to invasive species, Ware said predicting which species will have harsh ecological effects is difficult because of the many biological factors both with the species and the new environment. 

Sundet said while predictions are difficult, crustaceans like the king crab are particularly adaptable and organisms have the best chance of thriving in a neighboring ecosystem. 

He said the snow crab is a significant candidate for entering waters near Svalbard because it is prominent in the Barents Sea ecosystem and thrives in cold temperatures.

The snow crab was first found in the Barents Sea in 1996 and some scientists estimate that there is ten times the biomass of snow crabs in the ecosystem than king crabs. 

Sundet said the institute does not have a strategy for monitoring the crab and is unsure what effects it will have on the surrounding environment.

“For sure the snow crab has already become an important player in this ecosystem,” he said.  “So for sure it will have an impact but we don’t know what it will be.”

The effect of an invasive species can be harsher in the Arctic than other systems because there are fewer species at each level of the marine food chain in the High North. 

“That makes the Arctic system very vulnerable because if you remove one species that has a kind of key role in (an) atrophic level you will actually change the whole system in a way,” Sundet said.