Ten Threats: Luring the Lamprey

  • The sea lamprey, up close. (Photo courtesy of USFWS)

One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is the decline of many of the native species. The lake trout has been in trouble from over-fishing and because of an invasive species called, the sea lamprey. Conservation agents use a pesticide to keep the lamprey down, but it’s expensive, and sometimes it kills other fish. Now, researchers have discovered a lamprey pheromone that could help the fight against the sea lamprey. Stephanie Hemphill has that story:

Transcript

In our next report in the series Ten Threats to the Great Lakes we hear about how a native
fish has been hurt by an invasive species that swam into the lakes through a canal. Lester
Graham is our guide through the series.


One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is the decline of many of the native species.
The lake trout has been in trouble from over-fishing and because of an invasive species
called, the sea lamprey. Ever since it invaded the Great Lakes, scientists have been trying
to keep the invasive sea lamprey under control.


Conservation agents use a pesticide to keep the lamprey numbers down, but it’s expensive,
and sometimes it kills other fish. Now, researchers have discovered a lamprey
pheromone. They think the chemical attractant could be a big help in their fight against
one of the most destructive invasive species in the Great Lakes. Stephanie Hemphill
has that story:


The sea lamprey came into the Great Lakes through canals more than a hundred years
ago. The slimy parasites attach themselves to big fish and feed on them until they die.
Each lamprey can kill 40 pounds of fish in its lifetime.


Between sea lampreys and over-fishing, the big native fish, the Lake Trout, was wiped out
in the lower Great Lakes. Only a few survived in small pockets in Lake Huron. Lake
Superior is the only place Lake Trout survive in healthy numbers.


There’s an aggressive 15-million dollar a year program to keep sea lamprey numbers
down. Part of the effort is using a chemical called TFM that kills the lamprey.
Wildlife managers spread the lampricide in streams in the spring. It kills some of the
young lamprey as they swim down into the lake.


University of Minnesota biologist Peter Sorensen says he and other scientists noticed that
TFM kills not just the juveniles, but the larvae that live in the streambed too. They also
realized, after a stream is treated, very few adult lamprey come back to the stream to
spawn, or lay new eggs.


“And this led to an observation decades ago, which was key, that adult lamprey must be
selective in how they pick streams. They only pick a few, and if you remove the larvae
they don’t seem to go in there.”


Scientists suspected the larvae might play a role in the spawning migration of adults.
That might mean the larvae are putting out a pheromone that tells the adults it’s a good
place to spawn. Just one larva attracts a lot of adult lamprey, indicating the pheromone
is very potent.


It was up to Jared Fine to determine what the chemical is. Fine is a PhD student working
with Peter Sorensen. For two years he sifted through the water in tanks holding lamprey
larvae.


“Separating the different chemical compounds, testing them biologically, seeing which
ones have activity, coming back to the active ones, further separating them, and just
repeating this until you get down to the one or two or three compounds that have the
activity.”


Fine narrowed it down to three compounds. He purified them and gave them to a colleague in the chemistry department, Thomas Hoye. Hoye created a synthetic version of the most potent pheromone. He says it should be possible to produce it on a large scale, and that means it could be used to treat the
Great Lakes. The question is, how much would he need?


“You know, would it be a tank car load, would it be a football field, would it be a dump
truck? It’s none of those. Would it be a barrel? No. Is it a bucket-full? No. In
fact it’s only about 500 grams, that’s just one pound, would treat all that water for a
month.”


And that’s all it would take, because the lamprey only spawn for a month, but the
treatment would have to happen once a year. Peter Sorensen says when lamprey
approach a stream to spawn, their clock is ticking. They have a powerful urge to lay
eggs, and once they’ve done that, they die.


“They are driven animals. Frankly they’re kind of on autopilot and pheromones are
what’s driving that autopilot to a very large extent, and now that we’ve got it, I think we
can really powerfully use that to our advantage.”


Sorensen says fisheries managers could use the pheromone to attract more lampreys to
streams outfitted with traps.


“You know the key here is the fact that this pheromone is natural, safe, and should be
very inexpensive to add.”


Fisheries managers hope the pheromone will help reduce the cost of controlling the
lamprey and add a new weapon to their arsenal.


The news on lamprey couldn’t have come at a better time for wildlife managers
around Lake Superior. After years of relatively constant numbers, the lamprey
population jumped dramatically this year. Scientists say lamprey may be finding new
spawning grounds in the mouths of streams, where lampricide is less effective. They’re
hoping they can use the pheromone to draw the lamprey to traps further upstream.


For the GLRC, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Canals Past and Present

  • This is an ocean vessel in the Soo Locks, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. The Soo Locks connect Lake Superior and Lake Huron, allowing for ships to travel back and forth. (Photo courtesy of EPA)

One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes identified by experts across the region is the possible
expansion of canals to allow larger ocean-going ships into the lakes. Some see the expansion of
shipping channels as a threat to the environment; others see it as great economic opportunity.
Just like in the early days of settlement, they see the shipping channels on the Great Lakes as
a way to make trade opportunities better.

Transcript

In our next report from the series, “Ten Threats to the Great Lakes,”
Lester Graham brings us a look at shipping on the lakes. Some people think
bigger ships could bring more trade to the region:


One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes identified by experts across the region is the possible
expansion of canals to allow larger ocean-going ships into the lakes. Some see the expansion of
shipping channels as a threat to the environment; others see it as great economic opportunity.
Just like in the early days of settlement, they see the shipping channels on the Great Lakes as
a way to make trade opportunities better.


Native Americans had canoe trade routes on the Great Lakes long before the Europeans appeared
on the scene. When French fur traders arrived, they copied what they saw. They built birch-bark
canoes to travel the lakes and to haul back fur pelts.


(Sound of Saginaw Voyageurs paddling and singing “Alouette, gentile Alouette…”)


Chuck Hoover is with the Saginaw Voyageurs, a group of re-enactors who re-trace the French
Voyageurs routes. Hoover says the large canoes were great until you ran into rapids on the rivers
connecting the lakes.


“What you had to do was pick up everything, including the boat, and carry it across the dry land to
the next place that you could put in water that was navigable.”


Those portages could be as long as seven miles. Carrying a canoe big enough to haul more than a
dozen men and the heavy bundles of fur pelts was a tough job and it slowed trade. So, some small
canals were dug to make passage easier. As the region developed even more valuable natural
resources were discovered. Bigger canals were needed.


Stanley Jacek is an Area Engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the canal and locks
at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. He says by the middle of the 1800s mining around Lake Superior
had become big business.


“Back in those days they discovered iron ore and copper in the upper end of the lakes here. So,
they had to get all that commerce down to the heartland of the country, so locks had to be
built.”


With a canal and locks to help ships negotiate the drop from one lake level to the next, the ore
could be transported to the big steel mills in industrial cities such as Cleveland and Gary, Indiana.


Christopher Gilchrist is with the Great Lakes Historical Society. He says you can’t underestimate
the value of those canals.


“The water-borne transportation was critical for the creation of the industrial age in U.S. history.
There’s a reason why the steel mills are located right on the banks of these Great Lakes. All the major
steel mills were located right by the water so that they could get their raw materials cost
effectively.”


At the other end of the Great Lakes the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in the 1950s to make it
possible for ships on the Atlantic Ocean to enter the lakes, and another big canal and set of
several locks overcame another obstacle to shipping on the Great Lakes – The Niagara Falls.


The Welland canal allows ships to go around Niagara. Since it first opened in the 19th century the
Welland canal and its locks have been enlarged four times. Each time the Welland canal locks
and the St. Lawrence Seaway have been made wider and deeper, the shipping industry builds
bigger and bigger ships to the point that they literally just squeak through…


(Sound of ship squeaking against timbers)


…Often rubbing up against the timbers that act as bumpers on the locks’ concrete walls.


Throughout the history of the canals, there’s been pressure to make them bigger and bigger.
Many feel the amount of shipping through the canals is tied directly to the economic well being
of the nation. The more the canals can handle the better the economy.


(Sound of buzzing, roar of compressor)


Back at Sault Ste. Marie, the locks open to allow another big ship through.


Stanley Jacek, the engineer at the Soo Locks connecting Lakes Superior and Huron says the
economic impact is pretty easy to track.


“What we do here in the way of passing of commerce mimics what’s happening in the country. You
can actually see spikes in the economy by looking at our traffic here.”


But some say the canals could do more than just reflect the health of the economy. They could
spur the economy if even bigger ships could come into the lakes. The ships, the kind carrying
containers ready to be pulled by trucks or loaded on rail cars, could go directly to Great Lakes
ports instead of ports on the East or West coasts. More direct shipping might improve the
region’s economy.


But environmentalists are worried. They say bigger ships from all over the world might mean
more alien invasive species damaging the Great Lakes. The wider, deeper channels might
damage the environment along scenic rivers connecting the lakes, and some believe expanding
the channels will let too much water flow out of the lakes that could worsen the problem of lower
lake levels seen in recent years.


The plans for bigger ships are on hold for right now. But, given the history of the canals, many
believe expansion is only a matter of time.


For the GLRC, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Expanding the Seaway

  • A freighter leaving the Duluth harbor in Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of EPA)

One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes identified by many of the experts we surveyed
is dredging channels deeper and wider for larger ocean-going ships. In the 1950s, engineers
carved a shipping channel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence
River. The St. Lawrence Seaway was to make ports in cities such as Chicago and Duluth main
players in global commerce. Today, the Seaway operates at less than half its capacity.
That’s because only five percent of the world’s cargo fleet can fit through its locks and
channels. For decades, the shipping industry has wanted to make them bigger. David
Sommerstein reports:

Transcript

We’re continuing our series Ten Threats to the Great Lakes with a look at the idea of
letting bigger ships into the lakes. Lester Graham is our guide through the series.


One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes identified by many of the experts we surveyed
is dredging channels deeper and wider for larger ocean-going ships. In the 1950s, engineers
carved a shipping channel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence
River. The St. Lawrence Seaway was to make ports in cities such as Chicago and Duluth main
players in global commerce. Today, the Seaway operates at less than half its capacity.
That’s because only five percent of the world’s cargo fleet can fit through its locks and
channels. For decades, the shipping industry has wanted to make them bigger. David
Sommerstein reports:


(Sound of rumbling noise of front-loaders)


The port of Ogdensburg sits on the St. Lawrence River in northern New York State.
When the Seaway was built, local residents were promised an economic boom. Today
what Ogdensburg mostly gets is road salt.


(Sound of crashing cargo)


Road salt and a white mineral called Wallastonite – the Dutch use it to make ceramic tile.
Front-loaders push around mountains of the stuff. In all, the port of Ogdensburg
welcomes six freighters a year and employs just six people.


Other Great Lakes ports are much bigger, but the story is similar. They handle low-value
bulk goods – grain, ore, coal – plus higher value steel. But few sexy electronic goods
from Japan come through the Seaway, or the gijillion of knick-knacks from China or
South Korea.


James Oberstar is a Congressman from Duluth. He says there’s a reason why. A
dastardly coincidence doomed the Seaway.


“Just as the Seaway was under construction, Malcolm McLean, a shipping genius, hit on
the idea of moving goods in containers.”


Containers that fit right on trains and trucks. The problem was the ships that carry those
containers were already too big for the Seaway’s locks and channels.


“That idea of container shipping gave a huge boost of energy to the East Coast, Gulf
Coast, and West Coast ports, and to the railroads.”


Leaving Great Lakes ports behind ever since the regional shipping industry has wanted to
make the Seaway bigger.


The latest effort came in 2002, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers studied the
economic benefits of expansion. The study said squeezing container ships through the
Seaway would bring a billion and a half dollars a year to ports like Chicago, Toledo, and
Duluth. But if you build it, would they come?


“Highly doubtful that container ships would come in. Highly doubtful.”


John Taylor is a transportation expert at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.
He’s studied Seaway traffic patterns extensively. He says there would have to be “a sea
change” in global commerce.


“Rail is too competitive, too strong moving containers from the coast in and out say from
Montreal and Halifax and into Chicago and Detroit and so on, too cost-effective for it to
make sense for a ship to bring those same containers all the way to Chicago.”


The expansion study sparked a flurry of opposition across the Great Lakes. It failed to
mention the cost of replumbing the Seaway — an estimated 10 to 15 billion dollars. It
didn’t factor in invasive species that show up in foreign ships’ ballasts. Invasives already
cost the economy 5 billion dollars a year, and environmentalists said it glossed over the
ecological devastation of dredging and blasting a deeper channel.


Even the shipping industry has begun to distance itself from expansion. Steve Fisher
directs the American Great Lakes Ports Association.


“There was quite a bit of opposition expressed through the region, and in light of that
opposition we took stock of just how much and how strongly we felt on the issue and
quite frankly there just wasn’t a strong enough interest.”


Most experts now believe expansion won’t happen for at least another generation.
Environmentalists and other critics hope it won’t happen at all.


So instead, the Seaway is changing its tactics. Richard Corfe runs Canada’s side of the
waterway. He says the vast majority of Seaway traffic is actually between Great Lakes
ports, not overseas. So, the Seaway’s focus now is to lure more North American shippers
to use the locks and channels.


“Our efforts have to be towards maximizing the use of what we have now for the benefit
of both countries, the economic, environmental, and social benefit.”


Today, trucks and trains haul most goods from coastal ports to Great Lakes cities.
Shippers want to steal some of that cargo, take it off the roads and rails, and put it on
seaway ships headed for Great Lakes ports.


For the GLRC, I’m David Sommerstein.

Related Links

Boat Nerds: The New Tourists

  • Ship-watchers gather at places such as the Welland Canal which allows cargo ships to go around Niagara Falls. (Photo by Lester Graham)

They look like birdwatchers. They stand with binoculars and notebooks and write down names. Or they travel to good spots for up-close viewing. But it’s not birds they’re looking for. They’re looking for ships. And they’re passionate about the huge boats that pass through the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Melissa Ingells has a look at the pastime of
ship-watching:

Transcript

They look like birdwatchers. They stand with binoculars and notebooks and write down names. Or they travel to good spots for up-close viewing. But it’s not birds they’re looking for. They’re looking for ships. And they’re passionate about the huge boats that pass through the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Melissa Ingells has a look at the pastime of ship-watching:


(Sound of sing-song shouting)


If you’ve ever been to the shores of the Great Lakes, or to the canals connecting some of the lakes, you’ve probably seen ship watchers. They’re the people with binoculars, trying to spot the name on a freighter’s hull.


It could be the romance of the sea, or a fascination with the storms or shipwrecks; something grabs people about it. Maybe it’s just because some Great Lakes ships are so huge. These kids on the St. Mary’s river near Sault Ste. Marie are trying to get the captain of a Great Lakes freighter to blow his whistle for them.


(Sound of horn, cheering)


Now, that’s big.


Sault Ste Marie isn’t the only seaway people visit to see the ships up close. At the other end of the lakes, in Thorald, Ontario, Ross McGimpsey watches the freighters. He’s come all the way from Northern Ireland to Lock Seven of the Welland Canal. He’s interested in the locks’ engineering, and in the size of the ships.


“I just came to see how they went up and down the locks, and to see how big it is and what it was like. You don’t really see this stuff when you go to Scotland, there sort of really small, just taking up, like little speedboats, but over here it’s full-sized ships, so it’s really different.”


McGimpsey’s one of the many people who travel for good ship-watching. Around the lakes, a cottage tourism industry has sprung up to serve the watchers. Terry Dow sees a lot of the tourists that come to the Welland Canal. She works at the locks viewing area in Thorald. Dow loves to talk to visitors about the ships.


“I love the ships. My office window is just, looks out here at lock 7, and you know, you can be typing away and there’s nothing in the lock and within ten minutes you have this huge ship in front of your window and I really enjoy them. My favorite is the John B. Aird from Algoma, she’s a great ship and I love watching her come through the locks, she’s also one of the largest ships that can come through, the biggest can come through is 740 feet, and I just like watching her come through. I love it here.”


Dow is a lucky ship-watcher; she works close to her hobby. She says some folks have actually moved to the area just to watch the ships. They call themselves the “boat nerds.”


“We have a lot of people here that live in Thorald that have retired from other areas, Toronto for instance, and they come because they love the ships so much, they buy a house along the canal and they are proud to be the “boat nerds” and they volunteer for me every day here in Thorald at the locks viewing complex.”


So, where do people like Dow and the boat nerds get their passion for the ships? Part of it is that people are just plain fascinated by the size of the vessels.


Lou Ann Kozma thinks many people first get interested in ship-watching because they hear some of the popular songs and stories about Great Lakes ships. Kozma organizes festivals in mid-Michigan that celebrate Great Lakes lore.


She brings in people who sing songs of life on the Lakes, tell stories of shipwrecks, and even make wooden models of the big boats people like to watch. Kozma says once a good ship story gets a person’s interest, they usually want to know the real facts behind the tales.


“In general, things like popular culture does romanticize it quite a bit like the Edmund Fitzgerald song, and perhaps shipwrecks, in particular hold that mystique, because ,there’s such a dramatic story, usually, behind each one, and then there’s the lure of just finding out about what happened, and people can discover that in so many different ways.”


Kozma says people find that ship-watching is another way to feel the adventure and romance of the lakes. Back at the Welland Canal, Terry Dow says even though she sees the ships every day, she and people like her never get tired of watching them.


“There’s a lot of people who love these ships. They love the magnitude of them. I’ve named them the “Quiet Giants of the Waterway,” because you can’t even hear them coming into the lock, and they’re so big that you just can’t believe that something of that magnitude you can hardly hear coming into the locks. So, there’s a lot of people, yes, who truly enjoy these ships.”


It seems like the romance of the Lakes and the marvel of engineering are what draw “boat nerds” to the water. And the number of ship watchers might be growing. Earlier in the day, Terry Dow spent time with a whole busload of folks who scheduled their stop just in time to see one of her Quiet Giants glide by right in front of them.


For the GLRC, I’m Melissa Ingells.

Related Links

Venturing Down Into the Seaway Locks

  • People have depended on the locks of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway for decades. (Photo by David Sommerstein)

The locks and channels for ships in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway are getting old. Some were built more than 75 years ago. The U.S. and Canada are conducting a multi-million dollar study to determine how to keep the aging waterway functional, so ships can continue to haul cargo between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. While the Seaway is closed in winter, workers empty the locks of their water for annual maintenance. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein climbed eight stories down to the bottom of one lock on the St. Lawrence River to see how it’s going:

Transcript

The locks and channels for ships in the Great Lakes
and St. Lawrence Seaway are getting old. Some were built more
than 75 years ago. The U.S. and Canada are conducting a multi-
million dollar study to determine how to keep the aging waterway
functional, so ships can continue to haul cargo between the Great
Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. While the Seaway is closed in winter,
workers empty the locks of their water for annual maintenance. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein climbed eight stories
down to the bottom of one lock on the St. Lawrence River to see how
it’s going:


If you’ve never seen a lock before, it’s basically a long, concrete channel filled with water. A freighter goes in one end. Gates close in front and behind it, so the water level can be raised or lowered to move the ship up or down, and out the other end.


Here, that channel’s empty and dry and you can see how huge this lock really is. I get a queasy feeling as I ease onto the steep metal stairs. I can see the lock floor 80 feet below me. Maintenance director Jesse Hinojosa radios down to the bottom. He says workers lose track of how often they climb the stairs.


“We should get a good count of that. They go up and down all day long on it.”


(sound of steps)


I take it step by step. There’s a temporary roof overhead. The only light comes from floodlamps.
The lock gates are open so they can be worked on, so at one end of the lock are stoplogs – stacked steel that temporarily keeps the river out. Still, some water rushes through and has to be pumped out.


(sound of water rushing)


Paul Giometta tops off the fuel tank of one of 10 furnaces that heat the area. He wears a fleece hat and big yellow boots. During the shipping season, he helps guide freighters’ in and out of the lock. But in the winter, he shifts to a totally different line of work.


Giometta: “Chipping concrete, stuff like that, painting, whatever has to be done.”


Sommerstein: “It’s an old lock, there’s a lot of chipping concrete.”


Giometta: “Oh, yeah, there’s no end to that. What you fix today, years later you start all over again.”


Winter maintenance has been an annual job on this lock since the Seaway system opened in 1959. The scale of the work is almost impossible to wrap your mind around. To raise or lower a freighter, the lock flushes 22 million gallons of water in just 7 minutes. It uses gears, valves, tunnels, and huge gates to accomplish the task. Most of that equipment is original, now almost 50 years old. Every winter, it all has to be checked out and tested. Some parts are replaced.


Tom Levine directs the Seaway’s engineering department. He points to the lock’s crumbling concrete walls. He says that’s one of the biggest problems.


“The bad stuff, where the bad concrete is, you take a hammer, it sounds like a hollow wall, and these walls where you’re looking at are like 60 feet into the backfill. I mean, solid concrete, I mean, you wouldn’t believe it.”


Albert Jacquez holds his hardhat and looks up at the walls. He’s the St. Lawrence Seaway’s U.S. Administrator, based in Washington. His demeanor is like that of a homeowner wincing at his rickety porch or rotting roof.


“Well, what I see is a system that has worked well for half a century, but that in the near future needs a major overhaul.”


There are 22 other locks in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway system. Most are owned by Canada. A binational study is underway to answer a critical question: how much will it cost to keep repairing all these locks and other infrastructure so they work for another 50 years? Jacquez says the answers the study finds could determine whether the Seaway gets a facelift or is left as is until it fails.


“Whatever those decisions are will be what they are, whether it’s ‘we’re gonna invest or we’re not gonna invest’, but they at least need the baseline numbers so that they know what they have ahead of them.”


But the study has been delayed. Lawmakers will have to wait at least a year longer than they expected because the project is so big. And President Bush has cut funding for the study in his budget plan by more than a half, which could delay it even further.


Meanwhile, keeping the Seaway open becomes more of a challenge every year. Jacquez says it’s like an old car.


“As it ages, we have to spend more and more time on it because we have more work to do.”


And workers face a hard deadline. Before spring shipping begins, where we’re standing will be flooded under 30 feet of water, so the lock can be ready to welcome the first freighter of the season.


For the GLRC, I’m David Sommerstein.

Related Links

Bigger Ships to Steam Into Great Lakes?

  • A freighter navigates the American Narrows in the St. Lawrence River. Expanding the system’s locks and channels would mean even bigger ships could enter the Great Lakes.

A new study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says Midwest ports and shippers – and the businesses they work with – stand to gain billions of dollars from an expansion of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway system. Building wider locks and deeper channels from Minnesota to Montreal would make way for bigger “container” ships that have become the norm of international trade. But critics say expansion would have dire environmental consequences, and they say the Corps’ study is full of flaws. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports:

Transcript

A new study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says Midwest ports and shippers – and the businesses they work with – stand to gain billions of dollars from an expansion of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway system. Building wider locks and deeper channels from Minnesota to Montreal would make way for bigger “container” ships that have become the norm of international trade. But critics say expansion would have dire environmental consequences… and they say the Corps’ study is full of flaws. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports:


The St. Lawrence Seaway began as a dream – to make the Great Lakes as important a shipping destination as the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Mexico seaboards. In fact, Seaway boosters used to call the Great Lakes the “Fourth Coast” of the United States. But when the array of locks and channels was built in the 1950s, Congress assured East Coast interests that a shipping route between the Atlantic Ocean and America’s heartland wouldn’t hurt their business. Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar:


“The Seaway locks would be built to no greater dimension than the largest inland waterway locks of the 1930’s.”


In other words, the Seaway was outdated before it was built. Today less than thirty percent of the world’s cargo ships can squeeze into the Seaway.


The Army Corps of Engineers’ study is a first step to change that. It says the Seaway could generate up to one and half billion dollars a year more than it is now if larger ships – the ones that carry containers that fit right onto trucks and trains – could reach ports in the Midwest. Oberstar says that would mean an economic boon for Great Lakes states.


“Those are good jobs. Those are longshoreman jobs. And that economic activity means significant business for Great Lakes port cities.”


So along with other politicians and shippers in the Midwest, Oberstar wants the Corps to take the next step – a more detailed study, called a feasibility study – that would look at the nuts and bolts of expansion. It would cost some 20 million dollars.


But downstream, on the St. Lawrence River in northern New York, critics say any plans for expansion have a fatal flaw.


(sounds of water and fueling a boat)


Under a blazing sun in the part of the St. Lawrence River known as the Thousand Islands, Stephanie Weiss fuels up her boat at a gas dock.


(gas filling, and motor starting)


She pushes off and weaves among literally thousands of pine-covered islands that give the region its name.


“You can see how narrow things are and how close the islands are to each other.”


Weiss directs the environmental group Save The River that’s trying to stop Seaway expansion.


(motor slows and stops)


We stop in the part of the river channel called the American Narrows. It’s like the Seaway’s bottleneck. Ocean-going freighters the length of two football fields thread through here. To make room for anything bigger, Weiss says, might mean blasting away some of these islands and the homes perched on them.


“I can’t help noticing that there’s this enormous rock in between the Great Lakes and the Ocean. It’s the Laurentian Shield and it is what makes these islands. To pretend that this is just a coast that needs to be developed is unrealistic.”


Weiss says the idea of a Fourth Coast, with ports like Chicago and Duluth rivaling those of New York and San Francisco, is ridiculous.


Environmental groups in the U.S. and Canada, like Great Lakes United and Great Lakes Water Keepers, are also opposing expansion. And they say the Corps’ study frames the debate unfairly. It doesn’t factor in environmental and social effects the groups say would make the project seem less attractive: things like rising pollution, sensitive wildlife habitat, plummeting water levels. The Corps’ project manager Wayne Shloop says those things would be addressed in the feasibility study. Stopping before that, he says, means letting the system’s locks and channels waste away.


“So somebody needs to make a decision… is it in the federal interest to let the system degrade or is it in the federal interest between the United States and Canada to make some improvements?”


In the U.S., that somebody is Congress. Congress would need to appropriate half of the 20 million dollars for the study. Lawmakers could take up the issue in September.


New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton recently took a boatride down the American Narrows to learn more. She disembarked with questions, about oil spills, accidents, and the hazards of winter navigation.


“This isn’t by any means an easy decision, a cost-free decision, that there are tremendous consequences associated with it, so give me your pictures, give me your information, because I’ll use it to be in conversations with people who think it’s just an open and shut issue.”


The issue will be shut rather quickly if the Corps’ study can’t persuade Canada to join in. Canada would have to foot the other half of the bill for the feasibility study. But officials from Transport Canada say they’re in the “very preliminary stages” of studying the issue. And they’re listening to everyone from shippers to environmentalists to recreational boaters before they make a decision.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m David Sommerstein.