Various attempts have been made in Congress over the years to put some teeth in regulations to control these costly foreign invaders, but lawmakers always seem to find bigger fish to fry and the problem, which costs American farmers billions of dollars annually, gets lost in the shuffle. Existing regulatory programs are often ineffective for lack of funding.

But the issue keeps popping up. House Agriculture Sub-Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., recently held a hearing with scientists and federal and state agency representatives to discuss the matter. Invasive species, he noted, “are dealt with under a patchwork of federal and state laws and regulations, administered by a wide variety of federal agencies.”

Inadequate funding and inadequate coordination at all levels of government further hamstring efforts to deal with the problem, he says. “Successfully combating these invasive, harmful, and alien species will require coordinated action by all those affected, including federal, state, and local governments, private landowners, and non-governmental organizations,” Goodlatte says. “It is also vital that we carry out research into efficient, effective inspection, exclusion, and eradication strategies.”

Invasive species represent “a serious threat” to the viability of American agriculture, forestry, and eco-systems, the hearing participants said, noting that these harmful organisms “cripple production agriculture” and impose “a great price” on society - including environmental degradation, disease epidemics, food/water shortages, damaged crops and equipment, and increased rates and severity of natural disasters.

The most obvious harm is to agriculture, they said, with farmers and ranchers “constantly battling alien pests, weeds, and diseases, with declines in yields and quality of crops and livestock.” It is a year-round problem in many areas of the country.

A recent report by the Pew Oceans Commission, a panel formed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, noted that some of the species are multiplying almost exponentially, particularly in coastal areas of the United States.

In addition to recommending formation of a federal strike force, the panel called for $50 million in funding to get the effort moving, along with more stringent enforcement of regulations already on the books for controlling the deliberate release of non-native marine organisms. It also suggested an “early warning system” to be administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

A report by the General Accounting Office, Congress’ watchdog agency, terms invasive species “one of the most serious environmental threats of the 21st century. James Carlton, one of the Pew panel members, terms the invasion of foreign aquatic species “a game of ecological roulette” that shows no signs of leveling off.

“Stimulated by the rapid global expansion of trade, transport, and travel, these species and their costs are increasing at an alarming rate,” the report says.

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com