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Playing with Mother Nature

By PAM BERNS
   The beginning of 2010 has shown us the need for innovation in numerous spheres: climate control, green jobs, medical technology and in Chicago, the need to find a solution to the invaders in Lake Michigan, the Asian carp. The seriousness of this problem cannot be overstated. Fishing and boating are essential to Lake Michigan’s invaders. The Great Lakes region supports a $7 billion sport and commercial fishing industry.
   Like others who grew up on Lake Michigan, my life evolved around water and wildlife. When I grew up, my father would let the fishermen and their tugboats tie up to his pier. We always loved waiting for the boats to come into the harbor as hundreds of noisy seagulls flocked overhead after a long day. For many of us fortunate enough to live on Lake Michigan, life was centered on it’s beauty and character—the dunes, creeks, wharfs and sailboats of Door County.
   The tourism industry is tightly tied to the great fishing surrounding Lake Michigan. Imagine Door County or Michigan’s Harbor Country without fishing. Yet for decades the fishing industries have been at the mercy of forces beyond their control. The dumping of PCBs in the lake ruined the livelihoods of many commercial fishermen along Lake Michigan beginning in the 1970s, as the government cracked down on sport and commercial fishing of native species like whitefish.
   I remember well the invasion of the lamprey eels that were native to the Atlantic Ocean. According to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, the lamprey eels came to the Great Lakes around the 1950s through the shipping canals. The parasitic lampreys feed on body fluids of the host fish and kill 40 pounds of fish in their lifetimes. The eels devastated the salmon, lake trout, whitefish, chubs, walleye, catfish and sturgeon in the Great Lakes. But the lampreys have been controlled by tactics such as poisoning larvae, sterilization and barriers.
   The invasion of the lamprey was followed by the invasion of the zebra mussels, which hijacked a ride in the ballasts of the large international cargo ships that emptied their ballast water into the Great Lakes. These mussels have devoured many plankton in the lakes, which other native species relied on for sustenance. Can the Great Lakes afford another blow by a foreign invader? Many scientists think not.
   As nature proves to us over and over, we cannot play with one element in the delicate ecological balance without altering the whole playground of interdependent species. These silver and bighead Asian carp found their way to the Mississippi River when they were imported to eat algae in fish farm ponds in the deep South. When flooding overtook these ponds, the big-mouthed fish escaped into waterways that fed into the Mississippi, and the carp have gradually found their way north up to the Chicago Canal, creating a panic to those who know how dangerous it would be for these monster fish to break into the Great Lakes.
   As most of us now know, the gigantic Asian carp are precariously close to invading Lake Michigan through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The building of the canal itself once seemed like a feat beyond mere mortals—reversing the flow of the Chicago River—and opening up the waterways between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. But DNA of the Asian carp has now been found in Lake Michigan. That means the Asian carp has the potential to devastate the environmental balance of the Great Lakes. But many businesses don’t want to hear that. The Chicago Tribune says we use the canal to ship nearly 15 million tons of commodities like steel and other building materials every year. The New York Times claims that 1.3 million more trucks—and the air pollution that they would create—would be needed to replace the movement of supplies that the barges currently handle.
   A recent mass poisoning of fish with rotenone, a long-used poison reportedly “safe” for mammals (although you shouldn’t eat the poisoned fish), hasn’t relieved the anxiety of large trade groups like the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters and surrounding states and New York. The State of Michigan has appealed, without success, to the U.S. Supreme Court to keep the locks closed to prevent the fish from escaping into Lake Michigan.
   In the waterways where the Asian carp have taken up residence, nine out of 10 of the fish caught are these giant invaders. Imagine these 100-pound fish taking over our harbors. They can travel 200 miles in a year, according to the Columbia Environmental Research Center, and being hit by jumping Asian carp can be compared to being hit with a thrown bowling ball, which could strike a mortal blow to a water-skier or sailor.
   The Great Lakes are facing more than a foreign fish invasion. Oil refineries have been dumping ammonia and other solids in the lake. Commercial bottlers want our water. Arid states and countries with dried-up aquifers do, too. But the recently passed Great Lakes  Compact has given us some assurance that this will not happen. How we enforce this precious environmental stewardship will determine the future of generations of those who live near the Great Lakes. Will big business—the barge and shipping industries—trump the will of the people who don’t want their Great Lakes overtaken by these massive intruders?
   Environmentalists and scientists, when faced with decisions affecting mankind, such as pollutants that cause irreversible genetic damage or tiny carcinogenic substances that repeatedly bombard our species in minute amounts, have turned to the “precautionary principle”—which means, in essence, when in doubt, leave it out. In light of the options we face with this invasion of the Asian carp, we have no choice but to try to prevent this non-native species from overtaking the Great Lakes. Once the carp make Lake Michigan home, it will be too late to reverse the move.
   If we could send a man to the moon to hit a golf ball in 1969, why can’t we figure out a way to keep these fish out of Lake Michigan? Why can’t we find a cure for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease in 2010? These are priorities. We must make major investments in biological and medical research. Time is not on our side.

Published: February 07, 2010
Issue: February 2010 Innovation Issue