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Turning tide on invasive species
Top scientists to study ways to stop intruders on St. Lawrence Seaway
By Dan Egan
degan@journalsentinel.com
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Posted November 12, 2005


Some of the best scientific minds in North America will soon be tapped to figure out how to stem the flow of invasive species spilling into the Great Lakes from the bellies of oceangoing freighters.

The National Academy of Sciences is embarking on a two-year, $850,000 investigation into options for the Great Lakes region to halt the onslaught of invasions tied to ships plying the St. Lawrence Seaway. The study also will look at ways to increase global trade in the Great Lakes region.

The Great Lakes are now home to at least 180 foreign species, and a new one is discovered, on average, about every 6 1/2 months.

Scientists blame contaminated ballast spills from St. Lawrence Seaway ships for nearly 70% of the new arrivals since 1970, creating ecological havoc and fouling some of the region's finest beaches. Patience is wearing thin among some regional and national politicians, although many in the shipping industry say the ballast problem will take time to solve.

Money for the project comes from the Great Lakes Protection Fund, a non-profit corporation created by the governors of the Great Lakes states to finance projects that improve the environmental health of the region.

The Academy, which was established by Congress in 1863 to draw on American brainpower to tackle some of the nation's toughest technical problems, recruits scholars who are often nationally renowned in their fields of expertise.

For the Seaway project, the Academy plans to work with its Canadian counterpart, the Royal Society of Canada, to establish a nine- or 10- member committee from both Canada and the United States, joint owners of the Seaway.

The search for those committee members will begin this month and should be finished by early next year.

"We want someone who knows about invasion biology in the Great Lakes. We want people who know about shipping, particularly in the Great Lakes," said the Academy's Jill Wilson. "We want people who know about the economy in the Great Lakes region, and people who know about transportation issues."

That committee will then recruit more experts to research topics that may include the economic importance of the Seaway and an evaluation of the types of ships and trade routes responsible for the invasions plaguing the lakes.

The investigation will take about two years.

"It's a very well-defined process," said Wilson.

Helen Brohl, executive director of the U.S. Great Lakes Shipping Association, said she supports the project.

"The Great Lakes maritime industry is extremely supportive of continued research in the prevention of new introductions and the control of the spread of invasive species," she said.

Too narrow, getting old
The future of the aged Seaway has never been cloudier. The system of canals, locks and channels linking the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean operates at about half capacity and has never lived up to the grand expectations that it would unleash a flood of global commerce.

The problem is the Seaway has become something of a narrow-gauge railroad trying to compete in a wide-gauge era; its locks are substantially smaller than those of the Panama Canal, and as a result, the Seaway can accommodate only a sliver of the world's bulk freighters and container fleet, as measured by each fleet's cargo-carrying capacity.

That is one of the reasons Seaway traffic is typically restricted to low-value bulk goods such as grain and ore, as well as shipments of more valuable foreign steel.

The Great Lakes and Seaway together do move a significant volume of cargo - about 200 million tons a year - but most of the traffic is confined to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. Overseas traffic accounts for only about 7% of the total tonnage moved, according to a 2002 Army Corps of Engineers study.

But that overseas traffic, typically outbound grain and inbound steel, is blamed for most of the invasive species introductions in the Great Lakes during the last three decades.

The Corps is now working with Canada as well as other federal agencies on a study to determine exactly what it will take to keep the Seaway open for business for the next half century. The Seaway's lower seven locks on the St. Lawrence River are 46 years old, and the eight upper locks in the Niagara Falls-bypassing Welland Canal are more than 70 years old. Operators say the system was built with a "life cycle" of about 50 years, and note that in places the locks are beginning to crumble.

That study, now in its third year, received funding from Congress last week to continue another year. It is expected to be finished by 2007.

In 2003, the Corps finished an earlier study that suggested expansion as a solution to the Seaway's woes.

That recommendation was highly criticized by conservationists who worried about the environmental impacts of building bigger locks and channels through the heart of the world's largest freshwater system. Taxpayer watchdogs also saw the proposal as a potential boondoggle. One big reason is the fact that the Seaway closes because of ice for about three months each year. That makes it a difficult trade route in this age of "just-in-time" deliveries for high-value manufactured goods.

The Corps was told to scale back its expansion studies and work with Canada to figure out what it will take just to maintain the system in its current configuration.

A question of value
Another recently released study funded by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation claims that the transportation savings associated with overseas shipments into the Great Lakes amounts to about $55 million annually.

John Taylor, an associate professor at Michigan's Grand Valley State University, said he reached his figure by identifying precisely what moves through the Seaway into the lakes, and what it would cost to bring that material in by some other means, such as truck, rail or Mississippi River barge.

Taylor said because transportation costs can fluctuate wildly from month to month, his number is just a snapshot in time. But conservationists have seized on it, given that an estimate for the pipe-clogging cost of the zebra mussel to cities and utilities is about $1.5 billion since the mussel was first discovered in the Great Lakes in the 1980s.

Some Seaway advocates have called Taylor's analysis an overly simplistic look at a complex system, and note that it did not take into account that the Seaway provides competition to keep other transportation options low.

Last week, in response to a Journal Sentinel editorial that questioned the value of overseas ships in the region in light of the ecological havoc they have wrought, the U.S. and Canadian Seaway bosses wrote in a guest opinion that the Seaway is "directly responsible" for at least 219 jobs and $28 million in revenue in Milwaukee.

That didn't seem to jibe with the fact that a recent Seaway investigation by the Journal Sentinel reported that there are eight full-time longshoremen at the Port of Milwaukee, supported by a crew of part-timers, to unload the roughly one overseas ship that arrives each week during the shipping season.

When asked about the 219-job figure, Seaway operators said they got it from the Port of Milwaukee. Acting port director Eric Reinelt said he reached that number by using a formula provided by a Seaway consultant.

Joyce Foundation study author John Taylor will appear before a panel of transportation experts in Chicago Nov. 30 to explain his $55 million figure.

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