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Great Lakes Article:

Non-native species are damaging our Great Lakes ecosystem
By Tim Martin
Lansing State Journal
08/24/03


Fifteen years after it was detected in the Great Lakes region, the zebra mussel continues to spread - causing at least $10 million in annual damage by clogging everything from boat motors to intake pipes at nuclear power plants.

Another European invader, the pretty-but-potent purple loosestrife plant, infests acres of waterways in a single stretch, choking out vegetation that serves as food and protection for wildlife.

They are among the more than 170 fish, plants and other foreign aquatic life forms that came here from overseas, mostly in the hulls of ships, and continue to cause problems in the region's waterways.

New invaders are discovered in the Great Lakes every year. And the worst of the bunch may be just 25 miles southwest of Lake Michigan in the Illinois River.

The Asian carp, which grows up to 4 feet long and can weigh 100 pounds, could decimate the Great Lakes' $4 billion-a-year fishing business by crowding out native fish and eating their food, researchers say.

"The Asian carp is the poster child for invasive species. It could turn the Great Lakes into a carp pond,'' said Dennis Schornack, U.S. chair of the International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canadian panel that helps find solutions to problems in the Great Lakes.

Schornack and others say more needs to be done to battle invasive species. Other troublesome invaders include the Eurasian round goby, which eats the eggs of native fish, and spiny waterfleas, which clog up fishing gear.

Invasive species are a particularly important issue in Michigan, which is home to more than 3,000 miles of Great Lakes shoreline vital to recreation, tourism and economic development.

"We've got to get everybody moving in the right direction on addressing the invasive species issue ... it ought to be moving more quickly," Schornack said. "We can't afford to wait.''

Carp connections

The Asian carp may be threatening enough to focus state, federal and international attention on an issue that many critics say never has received enough.

The number of unintended, invasive imports has skyrocketed since 1959, when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened to connect the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. Guarding against invasive species will require more money and a clearer focus, according to a late 2002 report from the General Accounting Office, the investigative branch of Congress.

Current regulations may have slowed the spread of invasive species, but it hasn't kept them out of the Great Lakes. Critics say the regulations on ship ballast water are ineffective, and more money is needed to address the overall issue.

The federal government and state of Illinois are attempting to rally with a $7 million electric barrier under construction in the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal, which connects Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River system. The barrier, which should be finished in 2004, would augment a temporary barrier installed last year, sending small shocks designed to drive back the fish.

The Asian carp was intentionally imported to the United States in the 1970s. Arkansas catfish farmers used the carp to clean up algae and waste in their production ponds.

But the fish escaped into the Mississippi River a decade ago, when flooding overwhelmed fish ponds. The carp has moved upstream 40 to 50 miles a year and now is in the upper Illinois River. From there, the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal connects the Mississippi system to the Great Lakes.

There was a report of a bighead carp found in Lake Erie last year, but researchers say there's no evidence the species remains there.

Asian carp can eat half their weight in plankton and other small organisms each day. A single female can produce as many as a million eggs.

It wouldn't take long for the carp to become the dominant Great Lakes species. That's a disturbing thought, experts say, because the carp has virtually no commercial value compared with the whitefish, trout, bass, walleye and other species now prevalent in the region's waters.

Another hazard: the "silver" type of Asian carp can leap eight feet out of the water when startled by a boat motor or sudden waves. An Illinois man, smacked in the face by a silver carp, suffered a broken nose. A Missouri biologist lost a filling from a tooth.

"Just about everybody on my staff has been hit by one at some point or another,'' said Greg Conover, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Illinois.

Conover took a hit on the chest during a recent boat trip on the Illinois River. "If it would have hit my shoulder, it probably would have been dislocated,'' he said.

Meddling mussel

Preventive measures are sought for invasive species because once they're here, they're difficult to control. The prime example is the fingernail-size zebra mussel, which has spread rapidly since it was first detected in the United States in Lake St. Clair in 1988.

The mussel since has spread to all five Great Lakes, about 150 inland Michigan lakes and 20 other states. The U.S. power industry spends up to $60 million a year maintaining pipes clogged with the invaders. The total cost to industry, business and recreation in the next 10 years could approach $3 billion.

"We have them on our docks. We have them on our boats,'' said Cindy Wycoff, who lives on Lake Lansing in Meridian Township. "I've stepped on clams with zebra mussels attached to them and cut my foot.''

Zebra mussels can stick to just about any solid surface - that's how they move from lake to lake, tagging along on boats, trailers or inside motors.

In the late 1980s, zebra mussels infested a City of Monroe water facility on Lake Erie. About 24,000 residents faced service interruptions while the meddling mussel was turned back - at a cost of $300,000.

While the mussel filters and clears lakes of some types of algae, it also works in reverse. Blooms of blue-green algae have been reported in some areas of high infestation, including Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay. Last week, a research team headed to the middle of Lake Erie to determine if the zebra mussel was contributing to a low-oxygen, high-phosphorous "dead zone'' there.

Mussels have clogged water intake valves and pumps at power plants along Lake Michigan. The cleanup cost has inflated utility bills for residents in several states.

The tiny troublemakers may also mess up the food chain. Since the zebra mussel arrived in the Great Lakes, levels of diporeia - tiny crustaceans favored as food by whitefish, smelt and other native species - have declined. Researchers haven't nailed down the exact cause-and-effect of the disappearance, but it coincides with the emergence of the zebra mussel and its more recently emerging relative, the quagga mussel.

Fisheries in northern Lake Michigan say the whitefish are skinnier than they used to be - sometimes too thin to salvage a usable fillet.

Researchers are studying ways to poison the mussels without harming other aquatic life, but after 15 years, the mussels appear entrenched. And, like most invasive species, the long-term consequences of their appearance aren't yet fully known.

"Any time an aquatic invasive species emerges, it's like an unplanned, uncontrolled experiment,'' said David Reid, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor.

"It's anybody's guess exactly where it will go.''

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