CORVALLIS, Ore. - Sam Chan, an Oregon State University Extension invasive species expert, will lead a three-state delegation of invasive species, restoration, and science education and communications experts on an 11-day trip to China this month.
Its aim is to help the Chinese begin to assess the extent of a non-native marine grass invasion that threatens mangrove-dominated coastal forests in that country's Fujian province.
The long-term goal is to forge a relationship between invasive species experts in the United States and China that could help both countries better deal with the threats non-native plants and animals pose to local species and ecosystems – and perhaps to reduce the transport of such organisms via trans-Pacific commerce.
Chan, who works with the OSU-based Oregon Sea Grant program, is an aquatic invasive species expert, watershed education team leader and an assistant professor in watershed health at OSU. He also chairs the education and outreach team of the Oregon Invasive Species Council.
The China venture came about as a result of Chan’s earlier work with Fanglin Tan, a faculty member with the Fujian Academy of Science, the academic science arm of the provincial government's forest service. The two men met in 2001 when Tan was a fellow at the World Forestry Center and Chan – then a research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service – held a workshop about invasive species and restoration in riparian areas on the Pacific Northwest coast.
High on their list of mutual concerns were species of spartina, commonly known as cordgrass. Spartina plays an important ecological role in its native habitats, including the east coast of the U.S., but can be highly invasive and damaging to ecosystems outside its native range.
Sometimes planted for erosion control and salt marsh reclamation, or used as animal feed and packing material for oysters, spartina can be a vigorous invader, quickly colonizing estuaries, driving out native plants, and eventually creating islands that block the natural flow of water. Ecologically destructive spartina invasions have occurred on both the west coast of the U.S. and the south coast of China.
The threatened mangroves are salt water-tolerant trees that are the center of complex ecosystems (known as mangrove swamps or forests) along coastal estuaries in much of the world, including the seacoast of China's Fujian province. Adapted to survive in both salt and fresh water, the trees and the systems around them can serve as important buffers to coastal storms and flooding, as well as providing habitat for shellfish and other commercially important species.
Since the Indonesian tsunami of 2004, China has turned its attention to the importance of the Fujian mangrove forests, along with off-shore coral reefs, in protecting its densely populated coastline from similar disasters caused by tsunamis or far more frequent typhoons. Of particular concern is invasion by spartina, which chokes off the normal flow of water vital to the mangrove ecosystems' survival.
The plant's structure – its rhizomes break loose easily and are transported by the water – makes it spread rapidly. The Chinese estimate that as much as 100,000 hectares (nearly 250,000 acres) of mangrove forest are infested by spartina, almost all of it spread by invasion.
Chan's May 16-26 visit is part of a major Chinese initiative to save its remaining mangroves as a protective belt around its coastline and to reduce the threat from invasive species.
"Our goal is to work with the Chinese in sorting through the probable causes of mangrove forest declines, including invasive spartina, and to work cooperatively to develop the best courses of action to protect coastal ecosystems," Chan said.
Accompanying Chan on this initial visit are David Hannaway, an OSU professor of crop science and member of the university's China Initiative Working Group; Merritt Tuttle, a retired official of the National Marine Fisheries Service; Wendy Brown, invasive species manager for the Washington Department of Natural Resources' aquatic resources office; Mike Spranger, Florida Sea Grant Extension program leader; and Edward Jahn and James N. Fisher, producer and photographer for Oregon Public Broadcasting's Oregon Field Guide series.
The Chinese government is funding the trip.
While in China, the team will visit several local forestry bureaus, meet with local officials, tour and observe estuaries and wetlands – both intact and spartina-infested – and will give formal presentations on the potential for ecosystem management and restoration. Chan hopes the trip will result in future collaboration on estuarine wetland restoration, spartina control and related research and public education issues.
"This is an opportunity for members of our team, for OSU and for the Chinese government to work on invasive species as a global issue, and not just a problem caused by organisms transported here from the other side of the ocean," said Chan. "Both of our countries face similar ecologic, economic and health problems from invasive species. We both have concerns about tsunamis and other natural disasters.
“The opportunity to discuss our common problems could allow us to work together seeking comprehensive solutions."