In the criminal justice system, aquatic plant people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the fish tank enthusiasts, who buy and love the plants; and the ecologists, who need therapy every time they see them. These are their stories.
One of the most overlooked topics for planted tank beginners is agriculture and fish/wildlife law. If the idea crosses their minds at all, the most common thought is, "It's available and I can buy it; therefore, it must be fair game." Technically, I can buy the pet red panda I've always wanted, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to have some grumpy game wardens show up later who won't believe me when I say it's a new breed of cat. There are several aquarium plant and animal species whose sale, shipping, breeding, and possession are illegal across several regions. We'll talk about some of the most important plant examples. Check in later for a post on illegal aquarium fish, amphibians, and invertebrates.
"But they look so cool in my tank. Why would aquarium plants be illegal?"
If an ecosystem is a buffet, the plants on this list are the unsupervised kids that take all the desserts when you're reaching for them. The plants by themselves aren't dangerous, but they ruin the environment for many other species. 99% of the time, aquatic plants are banned due to their being invasive or having strong potential to become invasive...which sucks, because they're often gorgeous and easy to keep in planted aquariums. Sometimes, though, certain species are also banned because they're threatened or endangered in the wild and we don't need their numbers lowered even more with the aquarium trade.
Some inhibit the growth of native plants by blocking light or soaking up critical nutrients. Others negatively impact water quality. They also often reproduce VERY quickly and can take over a region in a blink. All of them hit native environments hard and have the potential to wipe out species. Every ecosystem has a load it can support, and these plants push to and beyond that limit.
These plants can also form thick mats on the water's surface that make boating and watersports difficult and dangerous. Try water skiing through a carpet and let us know how that goes.
Who decides what is illegal? Do those laws ever change?
In the United States, aquatic plants are regulated by a few main organizations. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the main player that works with policy makers at all levels and develops/enforces regulations. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Departments of Natural Resources also have several initiatives to monitor and prevent the spread of invasive species. They work with universities, extension offices, and community groups. Laws and procedures are always subject to change and may become stricter or more relaxed depending on how effectively an invasive species has been managed.
Most Common Illegal Aquarium Plants
There are hundreds of species of interest, so always double check before you buy. But we'll touch on the most popular ones, here. Many of the culprits are floating plants. Bear in mind: most of these would make awesome tank additions if they're not illegal in your area! Don't let this post scare you off too much. Most of these are regulated at the state level, so even if it's illegal in one state, it might be legal in yours.
Cabomba (AKA Fanwort)
Myriophyllum (a few species: aquaticum, spicatum, and heterophyllum; AKA watermilfoils, parrot's feather)
How do I check if a plant species is illegal in my area?
With policy and scientific literature's constantly being updated, it's a royal pain keeping track of what is and is not allowed as years pass. It's good to keep these laws and research projects evolving with new evidence, but it can definitely feel like a chore staying up to date, especially if you have multiple species.
Good news, though. There are tons of resources to help you out:
-The USDA has a database of invasive/noxious plants you can search by state
-Local cooperative extension offices: these guys are fantastic resources for a LOT of plant questions and needs. If you can't find the information on your own, chances are reaching out to your county extension will get you what you need.
-USDA National Invasive Species Information Center, which provides lists of resources by state
-US Fish and Wildlife has a task force dedicated to aquatic invasive species
What do I do if I have an illegal/invasive plant? What's the harm in keeping/shipping it anyway?
Most of these organizations have anonymous reporting systems if your plants were sold to you illegally (domestically or internationally). You can also report invasive species you find in the wild.The most important thing, even if you choose not to officially report, is handling your plants responsibly and making sure they aren't introduced into natural waterways. Never dispose of an aquarium plant, even if it's not currently invasive, by just "releasing it into the wild" (this sounds obvious, but never underestimate people's ability to mess things up).
Allow the plants to dry out and throw them away in a sealed bag or container. Don't allow them to compost unless you're 100% sure they're dead and unable to spread, and keep them well away from bodies of water. You can also burn or freeze them before disposal if you'd like to make them extra dead. There are actually some places that have invasive species disposal stations, too, so look into those as well.
As far as "what's the harm," if you're not perfectly managing your plants and using biosecurity practices, even the best aquarist can accidentally introduce an invasive species and negatively impact the environment for decades, if not longer. It's not worth the risk.
As usual, Dustin had some awesome videos on this topic, too, so be sure to check those out:
Dustin's Fishtanks has plenty of species that aren't invasive and can bring your tank to life, too, if you're in affected areas. Check them out, keep your plant research skills sharp, and let us know what posts you want to see in the future. Tank on!
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