Illegal moss balls brought into NZ by artist ‘have potential to ruin’ lakes and rivers – judge

[New Zealand] Three moss balls that “have the potential to ruin the lakes and rivers of New Zealand” remain out in the community after a Christchurch artist illegally imported them into the country.

And the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) wants people to hand the marimo balls in before another destructive didymo-type biosecurity outbreak happens.

The moss balls, which were algae with a velvety appearance that were found mostly in lakes in the northern hemisphere, were sold through Trade Me and stalls in Christchurch over the 2015-16 summer, some of them in terrariums created by botanic artist Raquel Miranda.

Botanic artist Raquel Miranda bought moss balls online that a judge says “have the potential” to ruin NZ lakes and rivers and had them delivered to her in Christchurch.

People who have them could hand them in to the ministry and could expect a refund.

“Three are out there, unaccounted for. We have recovered 11,” said MPI inspector Jonathan Cowie, the officer in charge of the case.

“Bring them to the MPI,” he said – hoping the message would reach people who had bought them – during his evidence at the one-day, judge-alone trial in the Christchurch District Court on Monday.

Miranda said she bought the moss balls through the Chinese online retail site AliExpress and sold them on Trade Me and through stalls at the Sumner Summer Market and Riccarton Market.

Miranda said she had studied horticulture at university and had been in New Zealand nine years where she worked as a botanic artist.

“I didn’t know they were prohibited. Because other things I bought [online from overseas] came through, I didn’t really think about it,” she said in her recorded DVD interview, which was played in court.

She said she did not make any checks on whether the moss balls were legal to bring in.

Miranda has denied four charges: Obtaining a new organism and failing to tell the ministry of its presence, recklessly obtaining the unauthorised organisms, selling them, and making a misleading statement to MPI biosecurity inspectors by not immediately disclosing the number of moss balls she had.

Miranda’s lawyer said her client had made great efforts to recover the moss balls she had already sold. Notices were put up at her stalls asking people to return them for a full refund. Three of the 14 balls remained unaccounted for.

The trial was told she believed some of the ones she had were artificial, but testing later showed they were real.

Compliance inspector Richard Notley explained that the ministry’s website did not have a list of plants that could not be imported, but there was a list of plants that were allowed. He said there were simply millions of plants around the world so it was impractical to have every plant listed.

“Only plants that are permitted into New Zealand are on the MPI database.”

Landcare Research algae expert Dr Phillip Novis said he had examined the moss balls sent to him and identified them. It was not known if they were dangerous to New Zealand, but they were excluded as a precaution.

They were seen as “a kind of treasure” in Japan, where they were protected, but in New Zealand there was a risk that it could “smother” the very clean waterways. There was a concern that native “meadows” on lake bottoms could be screened out by the moss balls. It was very difficult to restore lake bottoms once that happened.

Judge Farish said it was clear from the interview that Miranda made no checks ahead of importing the moss balls about whether they were prohibited. Miranda had assumed she could bring them in, and now faced a charge that she “recklessly” obtained them.

Defence counsel Nicola Hansen said that even if she had made the checks, she would not have found the information she needed from the ministry’s website.

The judge said: “It may be that as a result of this case and the deficiencies you have pointed out, they may change their website.”

Hansen said that after being approached by the inspectors, Miranda had made great efforts to recover the moss balls she had already sold. Notices were put up at her stalls asking people to return them for a full refund. Three remained unaccounted for.

The judge dismissed the charge of making a misleading statement to an inspector, but found the other three charges proved. She remanded Miranda to June 20 for a hearing on whether there should a discharge without conviction and sentencing if required.

“If there are problems with the MPI website with people trying to obtain this information, then something needs to be done.”

In October 2012, a 20-year-old university student pleaded guilty to seven charges relating to breaches of the Biosecurity Act because they imported moss balls and sold some online.

MPI said the moss balls were popular among aquarists as low-maintenance pets and as an effective fish tank cleaning organisms.

Didymo, or rock snot, was first discovered in a Southland river in 2004. The blooms can attach themselves to stream, river and lake beds by stalks and can form a thick brown layer that smothers rocks, submerged plants and other materials.


Photo: Marimo moss balls are algae with a velvety appearance that are found mostly in lakes in the northern hemisphere. They are protected in Japan.

View original article at: Illegal moss balls brought into NZ by artist ‘have potential to ruin’ lakes and rivers – judge

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