An eBay user offering to ship giant salvinia anywhere in the US. The plant is banned for sale across state lines. Photograph: eBay
In the UK, the sale of controlled plants carries a maximum fine of £5,000 or six months imprisonment. In one particularly brazen example, an eBay seller in Yorkshire was hawking clumps of floating pennywort. The plant was incorrectly labelled “floating dwarf pennywort” but experts at the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (Cabi) and the the Canal & River Trust independently identified the species.
In the UK, the government has banned seven species of aquatic weed from sale or advertisement in England because they have destructively colonised rivers and waterways. But at least three were openly available for sale on eBay and one on Amazon for delivery to any Briton with a credit card.
“We all live in a free trade system, so in general, if you want to impose a ban, you have to have a solid justification,” said Genovesi. Swedish efforts to ban the commercial trade of North American lobsters into Europe on environmental grounds have been met with US resistance.
It is the second time in a week that eBay’s commitment to environmental protection has been questioned after the company refused to ban ads for the removal of exhaust filters from diesel cars.
Both eBay and Amazon have previously been criticised for hosting ivory traders, but the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) rates invasive species as a more significant threat to biodiversity than poaching for animal parts. In February, the CBD said there was an “urgent need” to control the vast, unregulated network of online traders who buy and sell these pests across the globe.
One approach suggested by Lopian was for large marketplaces – such as eBay and Amazon – to issue alerts to customers listing products that may be illegal. This would require the engagement and cooperation of the big marketplaces.
Sales information is not publicly available and neither company would comment on whether any plants listed were in fact sold into the UK. But Andrew Wiseman, one of the UK’s leading environmental lawyers, told the Guardian that in his opinion Amazon and eBay had broken the law by hosting advertisements on their British websites.
Invasive aquatic weeds, popular as decorative items among aquarium enthusiasts, are common online wares and incredibly destructive when they escape. In 1999, a small patch of giant salvinia (Salvinia molesta), a fern native to Brazil, was found floating on the surface of Toledo Bend reservoir in Texas. Astonished observers watched the patch double in size in just three days. Giant salvinia is ranked as one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species. Within a year of the sighting, the plant had spread to at least 50 different waterways and it now infests rivers and lakes from Virginia to California. Despite eradication efforts, 1,200 acres of Toledo Bend now lie beneath its suffocating embrace.