AMRAT 2004
Alabama - Mississippi Rapid Assessment Team

Frequently Asked Questions

Who are we?

The Alabama - Mississippi Rapid Assessment Team (AMRAT) is a cooperative effort to search for and catalogue any non-native species found in the coastal waters of Mississippi and Alabama . Spearheaded by The University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program, the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources and the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium; AMRAT is made possible by the participation of more than 20 organizations in Mississippi , Alabama , and Louisiana . Federal and state agencies, universities, corporations, and conservation groups contribute personal expertise, boats, and equipment for the project.

What is a “ Rapid Assessment ”?

A rapid assessment is a sampling effort of short duration (1 to 3 days) in a targeted, well-defined geographic area. For the assessment, individuals have been recruited from all over the southeast to sample our coastal waters in a variety of ways, including trawling, seine netting, hand netting, hand picking of animals and scraping of fouling organisms from surfaces, among others. The approach is to collect as many different organisms as possible, return the organisms to a laboratory for identification, separate native from non-native organisms, identify as many non-native organisms as possible, and send those unidentified organisms to specialists for positive identification. The list of non-native species then forms the pool of potential invasive species.

What is the difference between “ non-native ” and “invasive ” species?

A non-native species is simply one that has been introduced to an area in which it was not historically present. This introduction can be either intentionally, such as the introduction of a beetle to eat aphids destroying crops, or unintentionally through various means such as ballast water. A non-native species would also include species native to North America that have been introduced to areas outside their usual ranges within the country, such as the Coho Salmon which is native to the west coast of the U.S., but has since been introduced to the Great Lakes. Non-native species are also known as non-indigenous, alien or exotic species. Studying non-indigenous organisms is important if we are to determine what effects they may have on the native organisms and the environment.

An invasive species is a non-indigenous species that when introduced causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health. Since these introduced nuisance species are coming in as a new face to a biological system, they rarely have predators that would naturally keep their numbers in check. Without predators, an invasive species can potentially outcompete native species for resources such as food and habitat. Another danger from invasive species is that they may breed with native species, diluting or introducing characteristics into the gene pool that would not naturally occur. For these and other reasons, invasive species can pose a major threat to endangered species, second only behind the destruction of habitat.

An example of an invasive species is the zebra mussel. Zebra mussels, native to Poland and the former Soviet Union, were first discovered in North American Great Lakes in 1988, and have since spread to many states, including Alabama and Mississippi. Between 1993 and 1999, researchers estimated that losses to industries, businesses and communities as a result of zebra mussels topped $5 billion nationwide due to blocked intake pipes, infestations on boat hulls, marine structures and navigational buoys, and beaches covered with sharp-edged shells and rotting flesh.

Why worry about invasive species?

Once an invasive is established, it may prey upon or compete with native species of plants, fish and wildlife, as well as carry harmful diseases or parasites. The potential environmental impacts of an invasive species include a loss of biodiversity, stunted fish stocks, decreased water quality and habitat value, and impeded water flow. The potential economic impacts include a decrease in recreational opportunities due to impaired water quality and swimmer safety concerns, a decrease in commercial opportunities and adverse effects on important fisheries industries, lower property values, impeded water flow and increased risk of flooding.

Can some plants be considered an invasive species?

Plants form the foundation of biological communities, and invasive plant species can alter an ecosystem substantially. The five Gulf states together have more than 30 species of non-indigenous aquatic plants, which includes the notorious hydrilla. Hydrilla, shown to be a problem in all the Gulf states , reproduces by fragmentation. When it is cut each piece produces a new plant, allowing the species to quickly impede waterways, overgrow and shadow native plants and clog waterways. Several million dollars have been spent by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Tennessee Valley Authority and Alabama Power trying to control the spread of this species.

Where can we find out the results of the rapid assessment?

The results will be available at www.gsmfc.org within approximately one month following the close of the 2004 Mississippi rapid assessment.

Is there federal legislation about invasive species?

The Non-indigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act of 1990 (Act) established the National Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force (ANSTF). The responsibility of the ANSTF is to provide coordination among the various federal agencies that have authority and jurisdiction over aspects of management and control of aquatic invasive species. In addition, there are several non-federal members (Ex-officio) who are members of the ANSTF to provide additional input from the affected public. In order to achieve a full understanding of the aquatic invasive species across the nation, the Act also provides for the establishment of regional panels. The purpose of the panels is to establish regional priorities, identify aquatic invasive species of importance, and make recommendations from a regional perspective to the ANSTF. In 1999, the Gulf of Mexico Regional Panel on Aquatic Invasive Species (Gulf Panel) was established under the administrative support of the Gulf of Mexico Program administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As of 2002, the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission now provides administration of the Gulf Panel.

How was AMRAT started?

Following the October 2002 meeting of the Gulf of Mexico Regional Panel on Aquatic Invasive Species in Tampa , panel members Harriet Perry and David Yeager brainstormed about how to get a clearer picture of the status of non-native species in northern Gulf of Mexico waters. They mapped out a plan for AMRAT, and the network of scientists concerned about invasive species mobilized resources to launch the first large-scale rapid assessment held in the Gulf of Mexico – the 2003 AMRAT survey of Mobile Bay . Perry is director of The University of Southern Mississippi Center for Fisheries and Development at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs and Yeager is director of the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program in Mobile .

What happens next?

This is the second year of the project. We hope to have great weather and great success in cataloguing potential invasive species in the Mississippi Sound and the surrounding waters. The state of Florida is interested in how Mississippi and Alabama conducted the AMRAT survey. We will probably begin to work informally with them.