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Tough controls on invader species backed by MPs

Ocean pest: invasive lionfish are a major threat to native marine species (File photograph)

Importers of invasive species are in the crosshairs of legislation passed in the House of Assembly - with fines of up to $50,000 or two years in jail for offenders.

But owners of illegal exotic creatures could also be permitted to surrender them without penalties – and allowed to donate them to the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo in some cases.

Walter Roban, the home affairs minister, who opened the House of Assembly debate on the Invasive Alien Species Act, said the economic cost and environmental menace caused by unwanted plants or animals that infested new environments could be huge.

He added that unwanted imports could also “reduce the resilience of natural habits, agriculture and urban areas to the impact of climate change”.

Mr Roban highlighted the accidental introduction of scale insect blight in the late 1940s, which wiped out 95 per cent of native Bermuda cedar trees – a gap filled by “rampant pests” such as casuarina and Brazil pepper.

Problem animals in and around Bermuda include terrapins, once popular as pets, and lionfish, first seen in island waters in 2000.

Mr Roban said some reports estimated there were more than 1,000 “voracious” lionfish per acre in some areas around Bermuda, which had reduced the number of reef fish by as much as 79 per cent.

He added that inspectors of Christmas trees from overseas intercepted a colony of destructive carpenter ants last year.

Mr Roban told MPs the legislation, which was passed after debate, would help stop the introduction of new invasive species and halt their spread on the island.

Any species not already on the island will have to be approved with a biological hazard assessment – and the minister can make an agreement with a landowner, or go to the courts, to tackle invasive species on private land.

Penalties for importation, breeding or growing pest species can be fines of up to $50,000 or two years’ imprisonment.

Amnesties can be declared by the minister for people to relinquish prohibited species where appropriate, including allowing them to be turned over to the BAMZ.

Mr Roban said the proposed punishments would not make “criminals of the unknowing”, such as people who had pest plants growing in their yard without their knowledge.

Vermin and feral domestic animals were not included in the legislation.

Jarion Richardson of the One Bermuda Alliance said landowners might fear punishment for having casuarina trees on their property.

Christopher Famous, a Progressive Labour Party backbencher, highlighted the environmental havoc caused in Cayman by the invasive green iguana.

Scott Pearman of the One Bermuda Alliance, said that the Opposition “broadly agreed” with Mr Roban and praised his “environmental tendencies”.

But he added that the Bill was like a road trip.

Mr Pearman said: “We like where you are going, but we’re not sure if all of the proposals are going in the right way.”

He added that the Bill could “put people in jail for what is growing in their gardens”.

Mr Pearman said that under one clause, anyone could be fined or jailed for up to two years if they were in possession of an invasive species.

He added: “That’s extreme. It’s using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”

But Mr Roban countered that penalties would only be imposed on people who knowingly cultivated and profited from prohibited species.

He said: “It is only an offence if you knowingly bring in a species that is prohibited.

“There is no offence for having a prohibited species in your garden.”

Mr Pearman persisted as the Bill went through the committee stage.

He pointed out that the word ‘knowingly“ was not used in the relevant clause.

Cole Simons, the Opposition leader, questioned why primates were not on the banned list.

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Published September 27, 2021 at 7:54 am (Updated September 27, 2021 at 7:45 am)

Tough controls on invader species backed by MPs

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