One of the biggest environmental problems facing the Great Lakes is the introduction of foreign plants and animals. Invasive species such as the zebra mussel are causing havoc to the lakes. Local, state, and federal governments know about the problems. But there’s not been much public pressure on the governments to do much about them. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:
One of the biggest environmental problems facing the Great Lakes is the introduction of
foreign plants and animals. Invasive species such as the zebra mussel are causing havoc
to the lakes. Local, state, and federal governments know about the problems. But there’s
not been much public pressure on the governments to do much about them. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:
Here’s a factoid for you. In the United States alone in the 1980’s and ’90’s, it’s estimated
that it cost more than two-billion dollars to keep zebra mussels from clogging up water
intake pipes. Two-billion! Guess who paid for that? You did – in higher bills.
Zebra mussels are an invasive species. That is, they are native to a foreign place and they
were transported here – like many invasives – by a ship. Zebra mussels were sucked up in
ballast water in a foreign port and then pumped out in a Great Lakes port. The zebra
mussels have spread all over the Great Lakes, in huge numbers. They attach to
everything, including intake pipes. They’ve crowded out native mussels. And zebra
mussels eat the microscopic plant life at the bottom of the food chain, making fish more
scarce and causing fish prices to go up.
And that’s just the beginning. There’s been something like 160 invasive species such as
foreign fish, aquatic nuisances, plants, and insects brought into the Great Lakes region
one way or another and each one has caused problems. Dutch elm disease kills trees. A
fish called round goby eats the eggs of native sport fish. Invasive mites are killing off
“People aren’t outraged about it. And they’re not outraged about it because, I think, we in
the public interest community and the government side haven’t done what it takes to
clearly communicate why this is a problem to people.”
Cameron Davis is with the Lake Michigan Federation, an environmental group that
works to get policies changed in the Great Lakes basin. Davis says most of the time
people just don’t understand that because the government is not doing enough to stop
invasive species from entering the country, it ends up costing them and takes a toll on the
“When zebra mussels, for example, get into drinking water intakes, municipalities have to
pay to keep those things out of there. That means higher rates for you and me. For other
people, fishing is impacted. Invasive species getting into the lakes can mean competition
for those native species like yellow perch because of round gobies, because of zebra
mussels and other invasive species getting into the Great Lakes.”
The government agencies which work on these kinds of problems know about them and
some things have been done to try to prevent new invasive species from being introduced
or control them once they’re here.
Tom Skinner is a regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
and also heads up the EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office. Skinner says there
are several obstacles to stopping the invasions.
“One is identifying all the possibilities out there. Two is identifying how they get into the
lakes. Three is coming up with a technical solution to deal with the invasive nature of the
species. And four is getting the resources to make sure that you put the technical
solutions into place.”
And there’s another problem – government agencies, much like people, tend to deal with
one problem at a time. For example, sea lampreys entered the Great Lakes after a canal
was opened. They decimated lake trout populations. Government agencies attacked that
problem. Asian carp are threatening to spread from the Mississippi River system into the
Great Lakes through a canal. Government agencies are putting up barriers. One problem
equals one fix.
Tom Skinner’s counterpart in Canada, John Mills with Environment Canada, says
governments are beginning to realize that stopping the spread of invasive species cannot
just be fixed one problem at a time.
“It isn’t a simple problem of just focusing in on ballast water. It’s a much broader
problem. You can get organisms coming in on wood or other commodities that will take
up residence in the basin and create havoc.”
So, there are lots of ways for invasive species to enter the Great Lakes region. But the
Lake Michigan Federation’s Cameron Davis says no one seems to be looking at the
“We’ve got a number of different gateways to get into the Great Lakes, but we have all
kinds of different departments looking at A) individual gateways, or B) looking at
individual species. Nobody’s really there to pull it all together. We have a big
institutional problem that way.”
And there’s no one movement among environmental groups or consumer groups to
pressure the governments to step back and look at the policies that allow shipping and
trade to continue to easily transport invasive species into the Great Lakes region.
The EPA’s Tom Skinner says government agencies are working on it.
“We’re going to continue to work with the Coast Guard, with the Corps of Engineers,
with our friends to the north in Canada and try and come up with a comprehensive
solution to these various invasive problems. But, it’s easy to say; it takes a great deal of
work and effort to do that.”
And government agencies are not getting any real kind of public pressure to do it because
the public doesn’t realize the price it’s paying for invasive species.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.