State and federal efforts to stem the nation’s ongoing invasion by alien species would get a boost from a pair of bills which take aim at species such as the fish-devouring northern snakehead and the wetland-chomping nutria.

The National Aquatic Invasive Species Act of 2003, along with companion legislation to fund research related to exotic species control, cleared a House subcommittee in March. Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate.

The bills would strengthen efforts aimed at halting the arrival of new species, and step up efforts to seek and destroy problem species once they arrive and before they can cause extensive damage. The legislation has broad bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.

“This legislation is about changing our approach to invaders and being proactive in protecting our aquatic ecosystems like the Chesapeake and coastal bays, and it’s also about dollars and cents,” said Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-MD, who introduced the bills.

“Invasive species cost the country at least $138 billion each year, and it is a problem that will only expand and grow more costly, both environmentally and ecologically, if current law is not changed,” he said.

The recent discoveries in the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed of zebra mussels, the shellfish-destroying rapa whelk, and last year’s sensation over the voracious northern snakehead, have heightened concerns about exotic species.

More than 200 nonnative species have been identified in the Chesapeake, and thousands more are in the watershed. The Bay Program has been working on developing plans at controlling some of the most harmful invaders.

Unwanted species can have a dramatic effect. The nutria, a South American cousin of the muskrat, has destroyed thousands of acres of wetlands on the Eastern Shore. The zebra mussel is blamed for widespread changes in the Great Lakes ecosystem where some say it has altered the food web to the point that some fish species are in decline.

Many of the nonnatives, such as the zebra mussel, arrived in the ballast holds of ships, which routinely draw in water in one port, then release it—and anything the water contains—at their destination.

Since 1996, the nation has had a voluntary program that urged ships to empty ballast tanks and draw in new water in the ocean to minimize the chance of introducing a harmful species, but the program has had a low level of compliance.

The new bills would require ships to exchange ballast water or use other technologies to treat ballast to minimize the chance of spreading unwanted organisms. Ship operators would also have to keep records of all ballast-related operations. The legislation also directs the Coast Guard and the EPA to research more effective ways to treat ballast water than exchanging it in mid-ocean.

To deal with aquarium fish and other species that don’t arrive through ballast water, the legislation requires federal agencies to establish a screening process for all new imported species to determine if they are likely to have harmful impacts if released into the wild. Agencies would have to restrict, or prohibit, the importation of any species considered to have a high or moderate probability of harmful impacts.

The bills call for the development of state and federal monitoring programs aimed at helping with the early detection of new arrivals, and to write—and fund—rapid response plans aimed at eradicating any invaders before they become too widespread. It would provide funds to states to help develop their own plans.

Federal agencies would also be required to evaluate chemical, biological and other potential techniques to control nonnative species.

The bills also expand programs to educate everyone from ship captains to the general public about how they can minimize the chance of spreading invasive species.

“I think the biggest problem is that people just don’t understand the problem and how dangerous it is,” said Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-MI, a co-sponsor of the legislation. “So it’s hard to persuade ship captains that they have to sterilize their ballast water or at least exchange it while they’re crossing the ocean.”

The bills also established a nutria control program under which federal agencies will issue guidelines for nutria control and provide grants to states to help eradicate the species, a South American relative of the muskrat that has been blamed for destroying thousands of acres of wetlands on the Eastern Shore.

The two bills would step up research on exotic species, how to control them, and on the different ways they reach the United States. It would authorize Congress to spend a total of $180 million over four years to support research efforts targeting exotics as well as the development of state plans.