Blocking invaders: States, provinces search for common ground on Great Lakes invasive species


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Despite an unresolved dispute over Asian carp, states that surround the Great Lakes hope to develop a common strategy for battling invasive species.

From New York to Pennsylvania to Minnesota, there's broad agreement that invasive species -- particularly zebra and quagga mussels -- have wreaked havoc on the lakes' ecosystems and the regional economy. But the states have largely gone their own ways in dealing with them.

"We're talking about the largest body of fresh water in the world," said Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who co-chaired a meeting in Michigan this summer of governors of Great Lakes states, state and Canadian provincial officials, and environmental regulators. "It is important that we work hard to protect it."

In addition to Snyder, the meeting included governors Patt Quinn of Illinois, Mike Pence of Indiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin; Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor of Ohio; and Premier Kathleen Wynne of Ontario. Environmental regulators and other officials from Pennsylvania, Minnesota and New York were on hand, along with provincial officials from Quebec.

The council was established three decades ago during another Michigan gathering inspired largely by concern that Great Lakes water might be piped or shipped to arid regions. Off-and-on negotiations eventually produced a compact prohibiting most water diversions.

Snyder, convening the first gathering of the governors since they signed the compact in 2005, said he had hoped they could unite on invasive species policy as well, but acknowledged differences remain.

"This is a common-ground opportunity ... to say where can we advance and where can we show progress," Snyder said.

Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Minnesota filed an unsuccessful federal lawsuit against Illinois over a Chicago-area network of canals and rivers that could provide a pathway to Lake Michigan for Asian carp. The huge, voracious fish have infested the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Scientists say if they reach the Great Lakes, the carp could damage the $7 billion fishing industry by crowding out native species.

Several states pushed for physical separation of the Mississippi and Great Lakes watersheds at Chicago to keep the carp out of the lakes. But Illinois officials, backed by the federal government, contend an electric barrier is keeping the carp at bay.

Since the summer meeting, however, new evidence has proved that at least to some extent the electric barrier is not working.

In October, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey and Bowling Green State University documented for the first time that a species of invasive Asian carp had successfully reproduced within the Great Lakes watershed. An analysis of four grass carp captured last year in Ohio's Sandusky River, a Lake Erie tributary, found the fish had spent their entire lives there and were not introduced through other means. The announcement attracted nationwide attention and was considered an ominous development in the struggle to keep the hungry invaders out of the Great Lakes, where they could pose a serious threat to native fish.

Grass carp are among four species imported from Asia decades ago to control algae and excess plants in sewage treatment lagoons and inland commercial fish farms. The carp escaped and spread into the Mississippi and other rivers and lakes across the nation's heartland. Notorious for leaping out of the water by the dozens at the sound of an approaching boat, sometimes injuring boaters, they have been documented in the Ohio River as far north as Ohio. Officials from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission have said it's a matter of when, not if, the problematic fish invade the Keystone State.

According to a 2-year-old Fish and Boat action plan, it is illegal to possess, transport or introduce bighead carp, silver carp or black carp in Pennsylvania.

Marc Miller, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said his state had arranged for commercial fishermen to harvest 700 tons of Asian carp on the Illinois River in recent years.

"That takes the pressure off the electric barrier and buys all of us some time in finding a long-term solution," which could include some type of watershed separation, he said.

Great Lakes states and provinces also continue to look for agreement on the best way to regulate ballast water dumped by oceangoing cargo ships, the primary vehicle by which aquatic invasive species have reached the Great Lakes.


Post-Gazette outdoors editor John Hayes contributed.

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