Multiple listings of banned species found and since Guardian investigation 19 ads were closed down – but controlling the trade is akin to a game of whack-a-mole
A killer algae, a monstrous pondweed, a tree that has infested the Everglades and a dozen more of the US’s most environmentally destructive plants have been discovered for sale on eBay. Online traders told the Guardian that ignorance of the law led them to create listings that had spread hundreds of illegal specimens across the country.
Ebay hosted multiple listings for 15 species from the federal noxious weeds list the nation’s highest level of plant biosecurity. Most offered import to the US from abroad. But six sellers were hawking plants from within the country.
Three of the US sellers displayed past sales data, and between them they had sent 259 hazardous envelopes to unknown destinations across the country.
Rival site Amazon also hosted advertisements offering to import banned plants into the US. Amazon declined to comment or offer to amend their listings to prevent dangerous sales occurring.
An eBay spokesman said the company’s guidance places the onus on its users to adhere to local laws. He said the the company had keyword filters that aimed to alert sellers before they made a potentially risky listing. There are also “several teams” dedicated to enforcing the company’s policies.
One species sold on eBay, miramar weed (Hygrophila polysperma), has become a plague in many US waterways since its introduction in the 1960s – even outcompeting other invasive species. In one case, a patch of the plant grew from a tenth of an acre to more than 10 acres in just one year. Its dense mats choke off all other aquatic life, create breeding grounds for mosquitoes, clog irrigation pumps and leave navigable waters impassable.
Miramar weed needs only a shred of tendril to establish a new colony, meaning each online sale potentially spreads it to a new vulnerable habitat.
Another plant being advertised, prickly acacia (Acacia nilotica), is a native of Africa and India that has infested 6.6m hectares of Australian cattle rangelands, an area almost half the size of Georgia.
The species is not established in the US, but federal authorities are concerned that it could replicate this devastating impact on farmers across the southern states. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirmed that simply listing this species on eBay from within the US was a breach of the law.
After the Guardian began its investigation, 19 eBay ads were closed down. But for the USDA and eBay, controlling the online trade in invasive species is akin to a game of whack-a-mole
“Advertisements obviously can go live anytime so we don’t always find all listings or find them quickly,” said USDA official Yindra Dixon.
Dixon said that buyers and sellers could be prosecuted if they were found to be knowingly disobeying the law and did not possess a special permit. Penalties can“vary from an official letter or monetary penalties to jail time for serious crimes such as willful smuggling.”
The Guardian spoke to five sellers who had placed illegal advertisements of illegal species. Speaking anonymously, all of them said they had been unaware that their wares were contraband and could lead to legal trouble. The average price for a listing was $6.81, backing up the sellers’ claim that they had little knowledge they were risking large fines. None said they had obtained a permit, and most volunteered to remove their listing or change their shipping details to exclude the US.
One seller in New York advertising miramar weed immediately removed the listing, but their listing showed they already had sent 84 packets of the weed to locations around the country.
“All the plants I sell are obtained from either local pet store or online sellers of reputable websites, so I assume everything is legal to sell, without conducting any further research on my own,” the seller said.
A seller, who was offering to export killer algae (Caulerpa taxifolia) from the UK said he thought it was unlikely that the plants would find their way into the environment if they were disposed of properly.
Special interest sites that supply hobbyists and secondary traders mean that mainstream marketplaces, such as eBay and Amazon, are just the tip of an ecologically destructive iceberg. Hundreds of international sites, in many languages, offer dangerous imports to vulnerable regions around the world.
Yet the US remains the epicentre of the global trade in living organisms. Previous Guardian investigations have uncovered eBay and Amazon sellers potentially breaking biosecurity laws in Australia and the UK. In these cases, many of the problem sellers were based in the US. According to the government there are at least 4,000 domestic businesses and 15,000 individuals selling reptiles online, the numbers for ornamental fish and snails are even larger. When it comes to online plants traders, there are likely to be
Another seller, who was offering to export killer algae (Caulerpa taxifolia) from the UK said he thought it was unlikely that the plants, which are popular in household aquaria, would find their way into the environment if they were disposed of properly.
But the California government believes that incorrect disposal of unwanted plants by hobbyists was exactly what caused two infestations along the west coast in 2000. California spent more than $7m on eradicating the algae. In the Mediterranean the species has grown beyond control, destroying ecosystems and fishing livelihoods along 11,000 acres of coastline.
Dr Mark Hoddle, a biological control specialist at the University of California Riverside, said the aquarium, pet and nursery trades were “largely unregulated” in the US.
“It is outrageous that these invasive weeds are available through internet sales even though, as with [killer algae], the sale of these weeds is technically illegal in California,” Hoddle said.
Another of the federally banned species, goatsrue (Galega officinalis), has taken over large parts of Jake Forsgren’s farm in Cache County, Utah. He said the impact on grazing resulted in a 25-30% loss of income from his sheep farm.
Finding that goatsrue was for sale from the UK on both eBay and Amazon was “really scary”, he said.
“The sheep won’t eat it, cattle won’t eat it, it’s non-palatable and it just takes over. Meaning it will go into an area and literally become so infested that it chokes the grass out,” he said. Forsgren is also head of the county’s weed control department. “We spray goatsrue everyday. It’s literally everywhere.”
The Guardian searched eBay and Amazon for the scientific names of all 68 federally regulated weeds. It uncovered 26 listings of 15 species. The survey did not search the plant’s common names. Nor did it cover the various state-based restrictions, which generally encompass more species that the federal list. California, for example, bans the trade of almost 200 species.
One trader in Australia said they had sold three packets of 200 seeds of the broadleaf paper bark tree (Melaleuca quinquenervia) – one of the most environmentally disastrous trees in the US.
This species has impacted hundreds of thousands of acres of Florida’s Everglades. Controls cost the government $2.2m every year.
Jonathan Taylor, a National Parks Service officer who has battled the infestation for 14 years, said: “It only stands to reason that additional introductions of this plant poses the same threat to our natural ecosystems.”
Ebay sellers wanting to ship internationally commonly select the catch-all “worldwide” shipping option.
“As you can probably understand checking every country’s import regulations on every variety of seed we stock would be impractical as we do ship worldwide,” said the Australian seller.