Turning tide on invasive species
Top scientists to study ways to stop intruders on St.
By Dan Egan
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
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
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
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
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.