Presenter: Bill Provine

Commission Agenda Item No. 6
Statewide Hunting and Fishing Proclamation Investigations into Culture of Illegal Water Spinach in Texas
November 2003

I. Executive Summary: TPWD personnel have recently become aware that water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica), a plant on the “Harmful or Potentially Harmful Exotic Fish, Shellfish and Aquatic Plants” list, has been grown in Texas and widely sold for many years. The agency has decided to re-evaluate water spinach as a harmful or potentially harmful species. A concerted effort is currently being made by TPWD scientists and game wardens to gather information to determine if modification of existing rules is in the best interest of the resource and our constituents. Staff is currently gathering information about where water spinach is grown, how it is grown, how other states regulate the species, what are the chances of the species escaping cultivation facilities and growing wild in Texas, and what kind of impact the plant may have on native plants or water use practices. Additionally, surveys are being conducted to determine if water spinach is currently growing in the wild in Texas. Over the next few months, all available information will be analyzed and staff will consider making a recommendation to the TPW Commission concerning any changes to the regulatory status of water spinach. There are three basic recommendations that may be appropriate including: 1) leaving water spinach on the list of illegal aquatic plants without modification; 2) allowing use of the species with some kind of permit and/or stipulations; and 3) removing water spinach from the list of harmful or potentially harmful species.

II. Discussion: Effective in 1990, The Texas Legislature granted Texas Parks and Wildlife Department the authority to develop a “Harmful or Potentially Harmful Exotic Fish, Shellfish and Aquatic Plants” list. The list was an attempt to prevent the introduction of exotic fish, shellfish and aquatic plants that could potentially cause problems in the state. At that time, water spinach, also known by a variety of other names including rau muong and ong choi, was placed on the list. Water spinach was known to have a very fast growth rate and to have caused problems in the Philippines. Even though it was not known to have caused problems in Texas, water spinach was made illegal as a precautionary measure. It is currently an offense for any person to release into public waters, import, sell, purchase, transport, propagate, or possess any species, hybrid, subspecies, seeds, or any part of a water spinach plant. Penalties for possession of water spinach can range from $200 to $2,000 per plant for a first offense, and from $500 to $4,000 per plant for later offenses.

Although the law and accompanying regulations have been in place for 13 years, many people have either ignored them, or more likely, been unaware of their existence. A thriving business has developed for water spinach in Texas, and reports indicate this business may have been established for approximately 20 years. Water spinach is heavily cultivated near Rosharon, Texas, and there are indications it may also be grown elsewhere in the state. TPWD Game Wardens became aware of the situation in early 2003. In early July 2003, TPWD Game Wardens and scientists teamed up with U. S. Department of Agriculture personnel to confiscate over 2,000 pounds of water spinach in the Houston area. However, no tickets were written for possession of water spinach. The primary objective for the confiscations in July was to notify buyers and sellers alike of the illegal status of water spinach.

Increased community awareness has led to considerable concern and confusion among growers, sellers, and consumers. Questions are being asked about why water spinach, a staple food of many Asian Americans, is an illegal plant, what were the criteria for making it illegal, and if its illegal status can be changed. This issue is being investigated and staff will develop a recommendation for the Commission’s consideration.