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WMEAC: A ticking time bomb in the Great Lakes

• Mar 16, 2018 at 3:00 PM

The last time I wrote, I described a dismal outlook for Lake Michigan’s native ecology. I described Asian carp and other invasive species as a ticking time bomb. This time, I’d like to invite every reader to join the bomb squad.

There are more than 413 non-indigenous species that have established in the Midwest region. We know this because dedicated people work to document, understand and control their spread and effect on native species.

One of those people is Jessica Crawford, program coordinator at the Ottawa Conservation District. Among the services OCD provides is the Invasive Species Strike Team. This team provides information for the identification and removal of invasive species, as well as help with eradication of high-threat species. Their focus is on plant species, but they collect and provide information on invasive fish, insects and other organisms, too.

"We always get phone calls from people saying, 'I've got this funny looking plant on my property,’” Crawford said.

The OCD is an important resource; most people don’t realize that the weeds they’re fighting or the algae they hate is actually nonindigenous. Biologists can’t check every mile of stream and each small lake themselves — they rely on anglers, hikers and landowners to report the discovery of nonindigenous species.

Invasive species education isn't included in most school curriculums, either. That makes identifying and tracking the spread of invasive species by the public a lot more difficult. Most people don't know what they're looking for. You can make an invasive species report to the Midwest Invasive Species Information Network at misin.msu.edu.

Citizen reports are important information gathering tools for conservation experts. It helps them expand the information they’re able to include in their data.

“It’s essential to our operation,” Crawford said. Without the extra reporting done by citizens, it’s difficult for OCD to know where to concentrate their effort.

Making a report doesn’t stop invasive species from entering the environment, though. To do that, we have to be proactive with conservation regulation and legislation. That doesn’t mean less fishing, either. Regulation focuses on making sure harmful species aren't transported from one body of water to another. Most of them are about the proper emptying and cleaning of boats after they've been in water infested with invasives.

"If we accidentally transfer it on our boots, that could be an issue, too," Crawford said.

Park trailheads are hotspots for invasive species. People don't brush off their boots, pants or pets and then ferry pollen and seeds when they go from one park to another.

Most legislation, however, doesn't target individual action.

The ballast water that ocean-going vessels release in the Great Lakes has been the source of some of the most impactful species. There is no market for quagga or zebra mussels here. As they outcompeted the fish that are sold at market, the fishery suffered.

All that destruction doesn’t mean the risk has passed, either. There are still thousands of species waiting to invade the Great Lakes, and there's not much an individual can do to stop it. Keeping a close eye on legislation like 2017’s HB 5095 is important.

HB 5095 would’ve relaxed Michigan's ballast water regulation to match that of the U.S. Coast Guard. Those in favor of the lower restrictions think Michigan’s international shipping is uncompetitive because of the permitting system now in place. Conservation advocates believe the cost is worth the protection of the ecosystems. Citizens should reach out to Michigan’s legislators, who could use help deciding which is more important to Michigan’s public.

We shouldn't sacrifice the health of the entire Lake Michigan fishery for the convenience of the shipping industry. According to Peter Hinchliffe, on the Board of Governors of the World Maritime University, the world industry trend is already headed toward ballast water treatment, so why should we backpedal at the risk of our unique ecology?

Ballast water treatments won’t stop the Asian carp invasion, though. The major risk of their invasion is from the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Since its construction in the late 19th century, the canal has allowed water to pass from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. Despite the discovery of full-grown Asian carp beyond the electric barriers that have been set up, courts have refused to approve injunctions filed to close the canal, maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In January, governments representing 90 percent of the Great Lakes surface area signed onto a partnership to complete the funding needed for the Army Corps’ Tentatively Selected Plan to add an engineered approach channel, water jets, a flushing lock, a noise barrier and new electric barriers.

“Michigan is stepping up to take a leadership role due to the urgency of this situation and the efforts necessary to prevent the entry of Asian carp into the Great Lakes,” Gov. Rick Snyder said in a press release. “Invasive carp pose a huge risk to several of our state’s economic drivers, including tourism and fishing.”

Just as we need to talk to our legislators about things like HB 5095, it’s important for us to appreciate and support when our government takes positive steps to protect our interests.

It’s also important for each of us to do our part by cleaning our boats and our boots, to make sure we’re not the method by which the invasion spreads.

Joshua Vissers is an intern for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.

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