Interview: Book Blames Coast Guard for Invaders

  • Ships sometimes bring unwanted travelers with them (Photo by Lester Graham)

Invasive species hitchike on foreign cargo ships and end up in US waterways. Lester Graham talked with the author of a new book about why the government has done so little to stop these aquatic invaders that are damaging the environment:


Invasive species hitchike on foreign cargo ships and end up in US waterways.
Lester Graham talked with the author of a new book about why the government has done so little to stop these aquatic invaders that are damaging the environment:

Lester Graham: “Maybe you’ve heard about Zebra Mussels. The thumbnail-sized mussels have invaded freshwater lakes, rivers, clogged water intake pipes, and damaged the environment across a good portion of the US – and they’re still spreading. The Zebra Mussel is just one of dozens and dozens of invasive species brought into the US by foreign cargo ships entering the Great Lakes though the St. Lawrence Seaway, which connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. What happens is ships in Europe or Africa or Asia take on ballast water, sucking up millions of gallons of water from a foreign port. Aquatic life is sucked up with it. Then, as the ships take on cargo in the Great Lakes, the ballast water is discharged, and with it things like Zebra Mussels and other foreign pests. Many of those species have spread from the Great Lakes into the Mississippi River system, and then transported by recreational boating in every direction from there. Jeff Alexander has written a book that chronicles not only those invasions, but the utter failure of the government to do anything effective to stop these introductions. Jeff, you make the argument that these invasive species, biological pollution if you will, amount to a more serious environmental disaster than the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska. How’s that?”

Jeff Alexander: “Well the Valdez, there’s no discounting the severity of the Valdez oil spill. But oil spills, over time, can be cleaned up to a certain extent, and the ecosystem can recover. In the Great Lakes, ocean freighters have brought in 57 species, they’ve caused billions of dollars in damage, and they’ve transformed the entire ecosystem.”

Graham: “There are eight states that border the Great Lakes, and members of Congress are aware of this problem, why haven’t they taken action to ensure this problem is dealt with once and for all?”

Alexander: “The shipping lobby has been very effective at keeping regulations at bay, the Coast Guard, which is the lead agency in the US, has just totally dropped the ball on this issue. They’re the ones who’re supposed to be the guardians of the Great Lakes when it comes to ships, and the Coast Guard is very close to the shipping industry. They have social events together every year. A lot of people blame the shipping industry for this problem, but I tend not to. They certainly have fought the regulations but, in the end, the reason that we have regulatory agencies is to protect public health and the environment. And our regulatory agencies haven’t done the job, and our politicians haven’t done the job – no one seems to have the backbone to stand up to the shipping industry and deal with this problem.”

Graham: “Are the foreign ships that bring in this cargo and take away grain or the other things from the Midwest so economically valuable that it is worth this economic and environmental cost?”

Alexander: “There is some debate on that, but the best economic study estimated if we kept these ocean freighters out of the Great Lakes, made them offload their cargo in Montreal and put it on trains and trucks, it would cost us an extra $55 million a year to move that cargo. That’s compared to the estimate of $200 million a year that foreign species are costing us in terms of economic and environmental damage. It’s not a stretch to make the case that the environmental and economic costs have far exceeded the economic benefits.”

Graham: “Jeff Alexander’s new book is ‘Pandora’s Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway’. Thanks, Jeff.”

Alexander: “Thank you.”

Jeff Alexander spoke with The Environment Report’s Lester Graham.

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Feasting on Backyard Weeds

  • Peter Gail holds his favorite weed: the spinach-like lamb's quarters.

Your barbeque grill isn’t the only place to find food in your backyard. There are lots of plants out there to eat, but most of us call
them weeds. The GLRC’s Julie Grant reports:


Your barbeque grill isn’t the only place to find food in your backyard.
There are lots of plants out there to eat, but most of us call
them weeds. The GLRC’s Julie Grant reports:

Peter Gail of Cleveland loves food. He’s got a lot of meat on his bones.

“Gee, you can’t get me to stop. I start eating this stuff and I can’t stop. It’s terrible, it’s terrible, it’s addictive (laughs).”

But his favorite foods grow right in his backyard, and probably yours. Gail is what’s
known as an ethno-botanist. He’s on a mission to teach more people about how to eat the
plants growing all around their houses. His latest converts are a troop of boy scouts:

“My grandson was one of the boys in this Boy Scout troop. And when I got over to his
house three days after we got back from scout camp, he grabbed the bag, the plastic bag
of weeds that his mother weeded out of the yard that day and dragged it over to me on the
patio and said find the edible plants in here and show me them.”

Gail says the yard becomes more exciting to most kids when they can sit down and
munch. His own love of the backyard snack started when he was just a boy. His family
faced some tough times. They were saved by a common weed known as lamb’s quarters.

“My dad died and left the family with no money. A friend told my mother we could live
off lamb’s quarters. For six months we went out and every day my brother and I would
gather the young tops of lamb’s quarters and then bring them into the house and my
mother would make them into every kind of spinach dish imaginable, until she learned
how to make a living. And then after that she still, we still liked the plant so we still ate it a lot.”

These days you could pay a lot for lamb’s quarters in a gourmet food store. They’re sold
as Belgium spinach. Or, Gail says, you could just take a quick look around your yard.

Today we’re walking around a backyard in suburban Cleveland. We find lamb’s quarters
at the base of a tree. Some say you can recognize the leaves because they look like the
hindquarters of a lamb. Gail thinks they look more like the silhouette of a Christmas tree:

“You’ll notice it has, when you’re looking down on it, it looks like somebody spilled a
little bit of talcum powder on the very top. It has that little dusting of white that is right on the top and on the underside of the leaves you see the same dusting, but taste one leaf, taste a leaf of that.”

And it does taste like spinach, but the USDA reports it’s even more nutritious than
Popeye’s favorite treat.

“It doesn’t take any cooking. It can be eaten raw, or it can be cooked. It will interfere, if you eat too much raw, with the assimilation of both iron and calcium, so you usually want to cook it. It makes a great addition to omelets, great cooked green, great quiches. Any recipe you use spinach in, you can use lamb’s quarters.”

There’s a lot more than just lamb’s quarters in the yard to eat. This time of year, Peter Gail also recommends sautiing the buds or petals from orange and yellow daylilies. He’s also a big fan of dandelions. He suggests looking for the young, tender leaves because they’re less bitter. Gail says he believes dandelions were brought to America by Italian
immigrants. They’re used in lots of Italian recipes:

“80 percent of the things we call weeds were vegetables brought here by immigrants.
That’s one of the reasons most of the things we call weeds in our backyards aren’t
indigenous plants. They aren’t plants that were from America. They’re plants that are
from Europe and Asia and from South America.”

Gail says over time those traditional foods escaped from gardens into the wild. After
World War II, things changed. Most people started buying food at the grocery store and foraging became unpopular. He says only the poor searched the yard for food:

“One by one, as generations went by, the kids didn’t learn as much the second generation,
the third generation they knew nothing. And by the time we reach where we are now,
almost everybody can walk right by the most nutritious plant going, the most commonly eaten
plant back in the 30s and 40s, and not even have a clue what it is.”

Gail is trying to change that. He wants people to become reacquainted with these plants
so we don’t recklessly destroy them. He travels around the country giving workshops,
taking people on neighborhood forages, and teaching cooking classes. Gail believes we
might need these plants again someday.

For the GLRC, I’m Julie Grant.

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