EDITORIAL: Japan at crossroads to stop pesky fire ant invasion

Imported red fire ants, a poisonous invasive species of ants, are about to establish themselves in Japan.

Once it becomes an established species, the tiny arthropod, called “hiari” in Japan, would have serious adverse effects on people’s daily lives.

The government must prevent Solenopsis invicta from spreading widely in Japan by pursuing strict border controls and developing close cooperation with other affected countries.

Fire ants, native to South America, first invaded the United States in the 1930s and spread to other parts of the world during this century, including Australia, China and Taiwan.

In Japan, the fire ant was first discovered in 2017. These fire ants apparently hitchhiked in Japan in shipping containers.

For three consecutive years, from fiscal year 2019 to fiscal year 2021, large colonies with queens were discovered, while the number of confirmed cases kept increasing. So far, 84 sightings have been reported in Tokyo and 17 prefectures.

The red imported ant is not an ordinary ant.

It can inflict a severe sting and cause life-threatening allergic reactions in some people. If you step on a fire ant nest, you could be attacked.

As they like oil, they tend to be attracted to snacks and other fatty foods. This means that they can pose a threat to people who eat these foods in parks and riverside areas.

In some parts of the United States, walking around in sandals is dangerous because of fire ants. Some 14 million people are bitten by the ant in the country every year.

The United States must spend up to 780 billion yen ($6.76 billion) a year to deal with economic losses caused by the ant, which damages telecommunications facilities and electrical products as well as crops and the livestock.

None of the countries and areas where the pest has established itself have succeeded in eradicating the species. If left to spread widely, fire ants could cause enormous social and economic damage.

The government’s Central Council for the Environment presented its recommendations on January 11 to prevent damage caused by introduced species. As for the imported fire ant, the council warned that the establishment of the species can be confirmed at any time.

In addition to insufficient pest control before export, the group says, importers could also make the situation worse by failing to report sightings for fear of possible distribution disruptions. The panel urged the government to redouble its efforts to tackle these issues.

The Ministry of Environment is working on a bill to revise the Invasive Alien Species Act based on the panel’s recommendations for submission to the Diet during the current regular session. The bill would be designed to allow authorities to take action such as investigating, disinfecting or disposing of shipments whenever there are legitimate concerns that fire ants may be attached or contained to the interior.

The bill would also encode guidelines for the efforts companies should make into law and establish a fast and smooth reporting system of the ant’s discovery. It is essential to allow the authorities to take truly effective measures.

The ministry is also preparing the diplomatic ground for establishing international rules for container cleaning at the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, to be held this spring in China.

The proposed new requirements would increase the burden on exporters, but would need to be accepted by a wide range of countries, as any country could be the source or victim of ant-related harm. We hope that countries will recognize the challenge and come to an agreement on the rules at the meeting.

The threat posed by the fire ant does not attract much public attention in winter as the species tends to be inactive during the cold season. But the situation can spin out of control unless consistent effort is made.

This year will likely be crucial for national and international efforts to contain the spread of this pest infestation.

–The Asahi Shimbun, January 27

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