Friday, May 6, 2011

Spiders from Spain and Other Thoughts

An email in my Inbox this week included a question about importing spiders from Spain! Are there any regulations? Is a permit required? I’ve handled some interesting questions, but never this particular one. Working through our partners at US Department of Agriculture (USDA), we asked for more information—always a good first step, especially in this case, where the desired species du jour was the Mediterranean recluse, Loxosceles rufescens, a cousin of the poisonous brown recluse. The person wanted to import them to Portland, Oregon for “research.”

Ironically, an advisory committee is wrestling with proposed regulations related to non-native invertebrates as I write this blog.

There are a couple of interesting philosophical questions behind proposing regulations for non-native invertebrates. First, should the state use an “Approved List” or “Prohibited List” approach? An approved list would mean that species not on the list would be prohibited. A prohibited list would work the opposite way; only the species on the list would be prohibited—everything else would be allowed. In informal regulatory circles, these approaches are referred to as: “When in doubt, keep it out,” versus “Not a clue, let it through.” Anyone detect an echo of “Big Government” vs. “Personal Freedom?”

Most government regulations in this arena use prohibited lists, e.g., Oregon’s noxious weed lists. If a plant isn’t on the list, you can import it, propagate it, and sell it. Oregon uses a different approach for birds, fish, mammals, and other vertebrates. If it’s not on Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s approved list (actually several lists for non-regulated, controlled, noncontrolled species), it’s prohibited. Here is the regulation:

Requirements for Importation and Possession of Live Wildlife 
For species, subspecies or hybrids listed as Prohibited or those species not yet classified, a permit will
not be issued allowing the importation and possession of live wildlife, except to American Zoo and
Aquarium Association (AZA) accredited facilities, colleges, universities and those facilities which can
demonstrate compliance with standards as provided in OAR 635-056-0050(2). For species, subspecies or
hybrids listed as Controlled, an importation permit may be required as set forth by the commission. For
species, subspecies or hybrids listed as Noncontrolled, no ODFW importation permit is required.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) is proposing to use a similar approach for invertebrates, such as insects, centipedes, earthworms, etc. We think it makes sense to publish an approved list of the invertebrates that are used for pet food, classrooms projects, biological control, etc. These would not require a permit. Odd balls like spiders from Spain would require a permit. That would give ODA the ability to assess the risk of a proposed introduction and deny the request or impose safeguards if there is a risk of the species becoming a problem.

The second big question we’re wrestling with is where to draw the line on what species to include in the regulation. Should we focus just on agricultural pests, just insects, or every little critter that walks on the land or flies through the air? What about bees, spiders, millipedes, mites, earthworms, and nematodes? I have personally handled requests for bees from China, earthworms from Belgium, lightning bugs from North Carolina, and snails from California. The reality is we live in a global market that includes trade in all sorts of live animals.

Land invertebrates are actually only half the question. What about marine species, such as jellyfish, sanddollars, copepods, and, sand shrimp?  Should these be regulated? If someone wanted to introduce an Atlantic jellyfish to an Oregon estuary, would that be okay? I am not aware of any applicable regulations.

Marine species would be a world away from what ODA has regulated in the past, but if the field is empty, maybe someone has to step up and occupy it. The new definition of plant pest given to us by our elected representatives is quite broad and has a lot of latitude for interpretation:

As used in ORS 570.210 to 570.225, “plant pest” means:
      (1) A disease, microscopic organism, insect, nematode, arthropod, parasite or a noxious weed as defined in ORS 569.175, capable of having a significant adverse effect on the environmental quality of the state or of causing a significant level of economic damage in this state, including but not limited to damage to agricultural, horticultural or forest plants, crops, commodities or products; and
      (2) Any biotic agent identified in an order or rule of the State Department of Agriculture as capable of having a significant adverse effect on the environmental quality of the state, or of causing a significant level of economic damage in this state, including but not limited to damage to agricultural, horticultural or forest plants, crops, commodities or products. [2009 c.98 §4]

Where would you draw the line?

Now back to the Spanish spiders. Because USDA does not regulate spiders (nor does any other agency), ODA made the call. We researched L. rufescens, combed through our authority, talked it over, and replied, “Not allowed without a permit.” Because there is no established mechanism for getting a permit, it’s not a very good answer. Up until now, we’ve never issued state permits for invertebrates, but we were given the authority to do so when the legislature updated our plant quarantine laws. It’s time for us to figure out answers to these questions out and get a system in place. What would you recommend?

Dan Hilburn


  1. I think you made the right decision in the spider case. There may be very good reasons for wanting to use this particular species in research. If the importer can provide an effective quarantine, and if ODA and other regulators have the staff with the time to police the quarantine, it should be allowed in. The policing capability is the key question. I doubt that ODA has the staff required to keep on top of very many case such as this. If there are a lot of these requests who is going to make sure the permit restrictions are in place?

  2. Dan, I concur with the restrictive approach (aka Big Brother). Since we (the State and in many cases the Federal Goverment) does not have the resources (i.e. fiscal, staff, knowledge, etc) to adequately review, inspect, and understand the potential impacts (sorry, I am glass half empty guy) of new imports, it is better to keep them out until we can more adequately review the potential threats they might represent. I understand that potential beneficial organisms maybe be unduly restricted, but in many cases the evidence is pretty compelling that past introductions whether intentional or accidential have known costs that continue to this day. Let go an approved list process.