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Great Lakes Article:

Invasive species threaten region's water
Indiana response, chance for federal funding trails neighboring Great Lakes states
By Brendan O'Shaughnessy Statehouse Bureau Chief
Northwest Indiana Times
08/04/03


INDIANAPOLIS -- They're here: Fish that can breathe air and scooch over land, mussels that choke any host surface, and algae that ooze respiratory and intestinal toxins.

Invasive species may call to mind alien horror flicks, but the reality is that 162 of them already live in the Great Lakes region. In fact, a new nuisance that could radically alter the ecosystem and decimate native animal life arrives every six to eight months.

And Indiana, compared to neighboring states, has done little about it.

While environmentalists say that many of the headlines about "walking" snakeheads, zebra mussels and blue-green algae are exaggerated, they appreciate the publicity.

One called the huge Asian carp, with its voracious appetite and jumping ability, the "piscatorial poster child" for dangerous critters, because it galvanized public attention to the problem. Another said fishermen in Asian carp-dominated waters carry garbage can lids to fend off the leapers.

In Northwest Indiana, steel companies and electric and water utilities have been spending millions since the 1980s to control the zebra mussels that clog their intake valves. White perch recently have altered the sport fishing industry in Wolf and Cedar lakes by overwhelming more popular fish.

Lake associations in northern Indiana have spent nearly $1 million annually to remove mats of water-clogging Eurasian milfoil. And though it's not as pervasive as southern kudzu, most motorists in the region can spot spreading purple loosestrife in reedy clumps along the interstates, which strangles other plant life in wetlands.

Even if you're not a boat or fishing enthusiast, the threat of harm from nonindigenous species can easily compare to the rise in exotic health threats like West Nile virus or monkeypox. Then there's the economic costs of controlling these invasive species, estimated at $139 billion per year nationally by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2001.

Some scientists say the mobility and reproductive ability of invasive species create a biological pollution with a greater long-term effect on the environment than chemical and pollution hazards.

Control efforts rarely have been successful, but they include ballast-emptying regulations for ships and educational programs to stop fish-tank dumping.

Indiana lags behind

For the first time, Indiana this summer gathered environmentalists and representatives from three state agencies to form an Aquatic Nuisance Species plan, the first step in receiving $100,000 in annual federal funding that other states already receive. Pennsylvania is the only other Great Lakes state without a management plan or ballast-water discharge law.

Indiana control efforts are borne by private companies, lake and environmental associations and the state agriculture, natural resources and health agencies.

"How much is Indiana spending, and how do we compare to neighboring states?" asked Gwen White, project manager for the state's Aquatic Nuisance Species plan. "We don't have those figures."

Michigan, meanwhile, has just renewed its last five-year plan to coordinate efforts. A Michigan environmental specialist called spending on invasive species "extremely disproportionate," with Wisconsin and Minnesota budgeting more than $1 million while other states do little.

"We're behind in the sense that we haven't developed a plan as quickly, but the advantage is that we can build on their experience," White said.

John Ulmer, conservation chairman in the state's Sierra club, was more critical of Indiana.

"We're a fairly conservative state," Ulmer said. "We don't fund natural resources that can be someone else's problem until it's in my back yard."

Next year, Indiana will have an estimated $1.1 million raised annually from increased boat license fees that has been dedicated to removal of sediment and control of exotic plants and animals in Indiana waters. White said her goal is to present an ANS plan to the Department of Natural Resources at its Sept. 23 board meeting.

Prevention requires coordinated efforts

Scientists and environmentalists stress that invasive species are a regional and national problem that demands coordinated efforts. Congress currently is considering reauthorizing $45 million in funding to prevent new invasions and mitigate established problems.

Prevention measures consist mainly of killing invaders stored in the ballast tanks of ships. Ships take on and discharge thousands of gallons of ballast water to balance the ship depending on the weight of its cargo. Before entering the Great Lakes system, they must discharge water that could transport foreign species, but a layer of sludge can remain and harbor dangerous critters.

One typical shipping route takes imported steel from East European countries to Burns Harbor in Portage. The ship then may steam to Duluth, Minn., to pick up grain for the return trip to Europe. The Great Lakes water it takes on mixes with the bottom sludge, carrying out invasive species at the next discharge.

Each port is especially vulnerable to exotic species introductions, so prevention methods include costly chemical treatment and exchange of ballast water in the salty Atlantic. Neither method has proven foolproof. Since the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, most invasive species have taken this route.

Another entrance is the Chicago River, which opens the Mississippi River basin to exotic species. An electric barrier currently stops Asian carp moving up the Mississippi River from entering the Great Lakes, but many experts believe a more permanent, physical barrier is necessary.

Joel Brammeier, habitat coordinator for the Lake Michigan Federation, compared these two routes to the front and back doors for invasive species.

"The Asian carp has a personality that enables people to connect with the problem, and it's also potentially the most damaging invader," Brammeier said. "Cutting off new invasions at those two doors is key to stabilizing the ecosystem."

Mitigation efforts begin at home

Brammeier said people introduce exotic species and have opened a disturbing side-door route. When cute exotic pets become too large, many owners dump them into a nearby water system. Piranha, for example, have been caught in nearly a dozen Indiana lakes.

White perch from Lake Michigan recently have invaded the inland waters of Cedar and Wolf lakes, likely through human introduction. A 2001 fisheries survey found that white perch, which are not as desirable as other sport fish, overwhelmed the native walleye, bass and perch and now comprise 88 percent of Cedar Lake's catch and 49 percent in Wolf Lake.

Nonnative fish, zebra mussels and Eurasian milfoil can be transported by accident as well, even in amounts as small as a diver's wet suit or a bait bucket, said Brian Breidert, a Lake Michigan Fisheries biologist in Michigan City.

"Recreational boaters and anglers need to be aware of the body of water their boats are in or they can move exotic species from lake to lake," Breidert said.

One difficulty in educating the public is that not all exotic species become a problem. Alewife, for instance, were considered a nuisance in the 1960s but created a billion-dollar salmon industry in Lake Michigan and its tributaries, Breidert said.

Also, different groups may disagree about an invader. Many boaters appreciate the zebra mussels because they have brought greater clarity to the water, yet they clog valves and can contribute to nuisance algae.

Much of the Department of Natural Resources efforts have focused on creating education materials for the public. Other efforts to control invasive species are all over Northwest Indiana.

-- Asian carp have been banned from live sale or ownership to stop illegal dumping since January.

-- Construction of a low dam and fish ladder on Trail Creek is aimed at controlling sea lamprey spawning.

-- Lake associations and property owners regularly spray chemicals or release predatory bugs on Eurasian milfoil and purple loosestrife.

-- About 30 inland Indiana lakes already have zebra mussels, so education efforts focus on disinfecting boats and equipment before moving from infested to uninfested lakes.

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