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Is the EU’s new Invasive Alien Species Regulation set for success?

Author: Gemma Darwin

Outlining actions to deal with one of the world’s biggest threats to biodiversity, the EU’s Regulation on invasive alien species (IAS) could not have come sooner. Is this new regulation set for success or are there still hurdles to overcome?

IAS are species that have been introduced into habitats outside of their natural range and negatively affect native biodiversity and ecosystem services. Humans have been responsible for introducing new species for centuries, either intentionally or accidentally, but the introduction rate has risen dramatically due to globalisation and increased travel and trade. Estimates show there are currently between 1,200 and 1,800 IAS in Europe [1]. 

IAS can decrease native populations by predation, competition or by transmitting disease. This can result in decreased native biodiversity, in turn causing an increase in ecosystem vulnerability, which can make a habitat even more susceptible to alien invasions. IAS can also affect human health, infrastructure, agriculture and recreation. Over the years, IEEP has played an integral role in supporting the development of the EU Regulation on IAS. This included calculating that the IAS impact cost to the EU is at least €12.5 billion a year [2]. 

In response to this increasing threat, the EU introduced its regulation on the prevention and management of the introduction and spread of invasive alien species in October 2014. It especially emphasises prevention, since this is more cost-effective and better for the environment than dealing with an already-established invasive species. The Regulation’s main implementation tool is a ‘list of invasive species of Union concern’ (‘the Union list’). These species are so harmful they must be dealt with at a Union level and so are subject to all Regulation measures. The Commission or Member States must submit a risk assessment to a Scientific Forum and the IAS Committee, consisting of Member State representatives, to include species on the Union list. This includes the risk and pathways of introduction, adverse social, economic and environmental impacts, and the potential impact costs.

With the Regulation being relatively new there are of course still issues up for debate. 

Are there enough species on the list?

The first Union list of 37 plant and animal species was introduced in August 2016 and another 12 were added in August 2017. However, this accounts for just 3% of all IAS believed to already be in Europe and disregards a main introductory pathway by not including any marine species. Furthermore, despite the Regulation’s emphasis on prevention, only a handful of species on the list are in the early stages of invasion or are not yet in the EU. One explanation for the limited number of species on the list could be the lack of dedicated IAS funding available. The EU LIFE Programme partially funds some risk assessments but if Member States could count on increased financial support there might be fewer arguments for avoiding costly prevention and management actions, potentially leading to more species being listed.

Conflicting interests in IAS impacts

The IAS Regulation recognises that some species may provide economic benefits in certain Member States but asserts that this should not compromise the Regulation objectives. Unfortunately, lobbying pressure means that economic and environmental interests sometimes clash. The American mink significantly affects native mammals and birds, and has caused the extinction of some of the last populations of European mink and the near extinction of the water vole in the UK [3].  However, it is a hugely profitable species, for example in Denmark, which is the world’s largest producer of mink skins. During each five-day fur auction at Kopenhagen Fur, skins worth more than €130 million can be sold [4]. It seems that the economic argument has won here with the result that the American mink has not been included on the Union list.

Factoring in climate change

According to BiodivERsA-funded research projects, future climate change may intensify the threat and impacts of IAS. Warmer temperatures could increase the range size of the predatory African clawed frog in Mediterranean climate regions [5] , and increase the invasion risk of garden plants found in gardens throughout Europe, many of which have already been naturalised [6]. This highlights the need for horizon scanning to detect possible new IAS, their quick inclusion on the Union list and the subsequent stringent prevention of their introduction.

Prevention over management

The challenge for Member States in preventing new IAS introductions is the development of effective early detection and rapid response systems. Member States are required to analyse possible pathways of introduction and spread of future invasions, and develop action plans to address ‘priority pathways’ with the most species or highest damage. According to the Regulation, surveillance systems to monitor the introduction and spread of IAS must be in place within 18 months of the adoption of the Union list. This places the deadline in February 2018 which doesn’t leave much time, especially considering that very few states currently have such a system in place [7]. Therefore immediate action is needed by the Commission and Member States to develop such systems before the number of IAS in Europe increases even further.

Despite many challenges and the urgently needed further implementation of the IAS Regulation, there have already been some success stories that can inspire a way towards further progress. For example, all North American signal crayfish have been eradicated from a quarry pond in Scotland increasing local insect, fish and amphibian populations [8]. The Ballast Water Management Convention will also finally come into force on 8th September 2017 [9]. The IAS Regulation recognises the Convention as a key tool for introducing control and management standards for ships’ ballast water and sediments to reduce the introduction and spread of aquatic IAS.

Since the inclusion of IAS in the Union list depends on the development of robust and high-quality risk assessments, the Scientific Forum on IAS and the Commission are introducing a delegated act that further specifies the risk assessment criteria, including integration of the latest scientific practices and methodologies for risk assessment [10]. IEEP is also playing a role in this update which is just one part of ongoing implementation improvements. This should clarify the process of adding species to the Union list resulting in its expansion.

Prevention will continue to be key in tackling the problem of IAS in Europe, especially in response to climate change and ever increasing globalisation. Surveillance systems that can detect future possible IAS and those in the early stages of invasion are therefore urgently needed, and Member States must take action to ensure that such systems are set up as soon as possible. Improvements being made to clarify risk assessment requirements should make it easier for such species to be included on the Union list. The lack of dedicated funding may hinder this necessary progress but surely no price is too high to minimise the costs of IAS and to ensure the protection of nature and the essential ecosystem services it provides.


[1] Official Journal of the European Union (OJ) L 317 2014. Regulation (EU) No 1143/2014 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 October 2014 on the prevention and management of the introduction and spread of invasive alien species. 

[2] Kettunen, M., et al. (2008). “Technical support to EU strategy on invasive alien species (IAS). Assessment of the impacts of IAS in Europe and the EU.” Institute for European Environmental Policy. Brussels.

[3] Bouros, G., et al. (2016). “EU non-native organism risk assessment scheme.” Neovison vison.


[5] Ihlow, F., et al. (2016). “Impacts of climate change on the global invasion potential of the African Clawed Frog Xenopus laevis.” PLoS ONE 11(6): e0154869.

[6] Dullinger, I., et al. (2017). “Climate change will increase the naturalization risk from garden plants in Europe.” Global Ecology and Biogeography 26(1): 43-53.

[7] Tollington, S., et al. (2017). “Making the EU Legislation on Invasive Species a Conservation Success.” Conservation Letters, 10(1): 118. doi: 10.1111/conl.12214.




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