Partnering with Pet and Pond Businesses to Prevent Aquatic Invasive Species

EarthzineImpacts of Invasions 2017, Themed Articles

The RIPPLE campaign mark, color scheme, and font were designed to catch the eye but not to discourage consumers. Image Credit: Michigan State University Extension

The RIPPLE educational campaign promotes safe pet and plant handling in Michigan using an approach that can be used in other parts of the Great Lakes and beyond.

Non-native animals and plants are commonly available for sale to the public through pet stores and garden centers. While a majority of these species are environmentally benign and economically valuable, some become invasive and cause significant economic and environmental harm. Invasive aquatic plants and animals introduced through channels of trade pose a significant threat to the Great Lakes and inland waters of the Great Lakes Basin [1]. These invaders are introduced through intentional releases of unwanted animals and plants into waterways or storm drains, or via escape from private ponds and water gardens. In fact, aquarium releases are one of the top five most common avenues for the introduction of non-native invasive species [2]. Furthermore, the unintentional inclusion of invasive aquatic species in shipments to vendors and consumers via ‰ÛÏhitchhiking‰Û organisms or mislabeling also is common [3, 4].

Some common, non-native ornamental pond and aquarium species that have flourished in North America include water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata), Chinese mystery snail (Cipangopaludina chinensis malleata), red swamp crawfish (Procambarus clarkii) and goldfish (Carassius auratus). While acquiring these species is still legal in some states and many are readily available online, there are practices pet and pond owners can follow to prevent their introduction and spread.

While regulations exist to control trade of invasive aquatic plant and animal species, there are inconsistencies among federal and state regulated species lists, limited communication among regulators and vendors, and weak enforcement [3, 5]. Therefore, education and self-regulation may be more effective in changing vendor and hobbyist high-risk behavior that may result in introductions [6].

Hobbyists expect retailers to be informed and to educate the public about aquatic invasive species, yet hobbyists do not report learning about invasive species when shopping for aquarium fish or pond plants [7]. A 2014 survey of aquarium and pond hobbyists in the Great Lakes region found that only 8 percent were aware of Habitattitude, a national campaign focused on proper disposal of aquatic organisms featured by some major retail chains [7]. Our observation that major retailers have Habitattitude language and symbols printed on bags of fish when they are sold, yet the symbol is not recognized by hobbyists, indicated that more effective imagery, language, and marketing strategies needed to be developed to protect Michigan waters.

From Idea to Reality: Stages of RIPPLE Development

  • In 2014, our team at Michigan State University partnered with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) to address a pathway of aquatic invasive species introduction that was not being effectively addressed in Michigan: unwanted aquarium pets and water garden plants. With funding from the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, we began developing an outreach and education campaign that targets businesses and hobbyists.
  • We worked closely with MDARD and Michigan businesses in the pet and pond trades to ensure that program recommendations and materials were science-based, accessible to retail staff and hobbyists, and would not negatively impact sales for our business partners.
  • We recognized that attractive and eye-catching materials would improve adoption, so we contracted with professional designers and videographers. The resulting materials have won design awards and regularly draw positive feedback.
  • In late 2015, we won a competitive Michigan Invasive Species Grant to implement RIPPLE, based on the research-based marketing and outreach plan we wrote during development.
  • Program implementation began in 2016, with a focus on engaging RIPPLE business partners. We found that networking with a few well-respected early adopters was key to engaging new partners, along with face-to-face meetings with business owners and managers statewide at their places of business, and with RIPPLE booths at trade events.
  • Interest from environmental educators has added further support for RIPPLE and we have expanded our outreach efforts to include them as key partners moving forward.
  • Aquarium and water garden hobbyists are the ultimate audience for RIPPLE’s goal of keeping unwanted plants and animals out of Michigan’s waters. We are reaching them both through direct outreach (social media, videos, appearances at hobby events) and through our retail and organization partners.

Partnering with Pet and Pond Industries: the RIPPLE Campaign

In response to this need, in 2016 we launched a new aquatic invasive species education campaign: RIPPLE (Reduce Invasive Pet and PLant Escapes) ‰ÛÒ a partnership of åÊMichigan State University Extension, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and dozens of Michigan businesses and organizations. The creation of RIPPLE was funded by the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and implementation is currently supported by the Michigan Invasive Species Grants Program, a joint initiative of the Michigan Departments of Natural Resources, Environmental Quality, and Agriculture and Rural Development. Michigan retailers expressed an interest in adopting an in-state education campaign to ensure the message and materials aligned with their interests and values. RIPPLE solely focuses on proper handling and disposal of unwanted aquatic plants and animals. This focus has aided the acceptance by industry and is an easy message to pass onto consumers. This engaged statewide approach could be emulated in other regions of the United States.

RIPPLE builds hobbyist and vendor understanding of the harmful impacts aquatic invasive species have on Michigan’s waterways and promotes proper containment and disposal of potentially invasive organisms. To achieve these goals, we are distributing eye-catching new materials, offering education and training opportunities, and developing partnerships with leading businesses and environmental organizations to provide consistent information about organisms in trade to the public.

We sought guidance from pet and pond retailers on messaging and material development, and they remain a target audience for education and outreach, as well as collaborative partners in sharing messages with hobbyists. The core message ‰ÛÏReduce Invasive Pet and PLant Escapes,‰Û and its acronym RIPPLE, were chosen for their simplicity and aquatic theme. Invasive species have a negative ripple effect on aquatic ecosystems, while education can have a positive ripple effect on ecosystem protection.

Invasive Species Outreach and Education

Aquatic plants can be difficult to identify, even for experts and experienced retailers, so the consumer-oriented materials we developed for the RIPPLE campaign do not emphasize species identification. Instead, these products feature easy-to-remember recommendations about containment and disposal practices. The recommendations are based on language from the Great Lakes Sea Grant Network.

The recommended actions are as follows:

  • Never dispose of the water or unwanted plants or animals from aquariums or water gardens in waterways.
  • Inspect and rinse new aquatic plants to rid them of seeds, plant fragments, snails and fish.
  • Build water gardens well away from other waters.
  • Seal aquatic plants for disposal in a plastic bag in the trash. Do not compost.
  • Give or trade unwanted fish or plants with another hobbyist, environmental learning center, aquarium or zoo.
  • Contact a veterinarian or pet retailer for guidance on humane disposal of animals.

To engage hobbyists in the recommended care and disposal of species, we developed a variety of print materials, including rack cards featuring recommended actions that can be stapled to receipts at the time of purchase, indoor and outdoor posters for retail display, stickers and hand towels featuring the campaign logo, and vinyl aquarium tank clings featuring the logo and campaign core message.

Retailers are provided vinyl fish and aquatic plant tank clings and are encouraged to place them on aquariums and throughout their store. Image Credit: Jo Latimore

We also are spreading the RIPPLE message through trade and hobby magazine articles and social media, information booths at highly visible trade and hobbyist events such as trade shows and retail open houses, speaking engagements at aquarium and garden club events, and the production of short videos on proper plant and animal handling and disposal. Program effectiveness will be evaluated by tracking adoption of RIPPLE materials for display and distribution by retail and organization partners, as well as attitude and behavior surveys of retailers and hobbyists.

Often, vendors of aquatic plants, such as garden centers and pet stores, have limited knowledge regarding the identification and invasiveness of the aquatic plant species they sell [8]. Therefore, we developed a brochure specifically highlighting Michigan’s regulated and prohibited species. RIPPLE will host invasive aquatic plant and animal identification training opportunities specifically for pet and pond retailers across Michigan starting in late 2017.

Paige Filice is a master’s student in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Michigan State University and a program coordinator for Michigan State University Extension.

Jo Latimore, Ph.D., is an aquatic ecologist and outreach specialist in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Michigan State University. Follow her on Twitter at @JoLatimore


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