While the headlines were being consumed with occupy this, occupy that, or the build up to the Black Friday horde fighting over a $137 television at 4 in the morning, not much attention was paid to what was going on recently inside the richly paneled walls of Congress.
However, a budget bill that slipped through the U.S. House should have all of us that consider the Great Lakes a precious fresh water sanctuary struggling to sleep at night. Hidden in the legislation is a proviso that dilutes the ability of regulatory agencies to protect the lakes from the scourge of invasive species.
Specifically, the bill does not supply the clout needed to make certain that the ballast water in ocean-going ships is free of non-native creatures. There are methods of treating this water to prevent the release of exotics, but these techniques carry a price tag and therefore the lobbyists for the shipping industry resist any move to mandate such precautions.
Ballast is pumped into a ship's tanks by the millions of gallons to add weight below the water line and provide stability in rough seas. When ballast water is loaded at one port and then discharged at another port as cargo is loaded, the environmental dice are rolled. What lurks in that water is seldom good.
The Great Lakes have been invaded by more than 150 non-native species over the past century and the scientific evidence clearly indicates that most of those aquatic interlopers that have arrived in the lakes in the past four or five decades got here via the ballast tanks of ocean-going freighters. Once the St. Lawrence Seaway opened, a conduit for trouble was in place.
The foreign invaders have great creature names ? round goby, zebra mussel, fishhook waterflea, Eurasian ruffe, quagga mussel, spiny waterflea ? but there is little to like about the exotic residents of the Great Lakes. They have displaced native species, disrupted the food chain and in some cases dominated the ecosystem ? after hitching a ride here in ballast water.
The fishhook waterflea, which is native to the Caspian and Black seas, dines on zooplankton, those tiny animals that the larvae of Lake Erie's prized gamefish need to survive. This pest has thrived in Lake Erie, the shallowest and warmest of the Great Lakes. Biologists are still calculating what its potential detrimental impact on the lakes might be.
The zebra and quagga mussels are indigenous to the lakes and rivers of southeast Russia and Ukraine. They were first found in North America about 20 years ago, and the ballast exchange of a single commercial ship that carried cargo from the Black Sea to the Great Lakes has been traced as the original source of zebra mussels on this continent.
The mussels dispersed rapidly as their larvae floated freely throughout the lakes, and mussels attached to boats that moved through the Great Lakes system. Just two years after they were first detected here, mussels were present in all of the Great Lakes. They are now a major nuisance in all of the larger rivers in the eastern half of the U.S. and in many of the smaller lakes throughout the Great Lakes area.
Filter feeders, these mussels remove microscopic phytoplankton from the water column, which cuts down the food source for zooplankton, further disrupting the food web in the lakes. The most costly factor involved with the presence of these exotic mussels is the billions of dollars in damage and additional maintenance expense they have created by clogging water intake pipes for cities and industries.
The round goby and the Eurasian ruffe have wreaked havoc of a different kind, preying on the eggs of gamefish and competing for prime habitat.
New legislation, regardless of its teeth, won't purge the Great Lakes of this assortment of Franken-critters that have already taken up residence. These foreigners are here to stay.
Weakening the ability of states and other entities to regulate the release of ballast water is an invitation to greater calamity. Sportsmen, environmentalists and conservationists should lock arms and unite in an effort to demand more from our government officials. We don't want foreign species further fouling our Great Lakes, or domestic invertebrates opening the door to allow such damage to occur.
Matt Markey is The A-T outdoors columnist.
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