New law won't stop lakes invaders
Written by Detroit Free Press   
Thursday, 28 December 2006 15:33

Suppose you lived on the third floor of a five-story apartment building and found out that half of the people in the building were running home businesses that involved assembling time bombs. If you complained, and the management of the building instituted a rule that said no one could assemble bombs on your floor, would that make you feel safer?

Well, that's the position Michigan is in after passing a law that would prevent ships from dumping untreated ballast water in Michigan's Great Lakes ports. It doesn't control what goes on in the ports in other Great Lakes states.

The new law, which goes into effect New Year's Day, was passed as scientists discovered yet another potentially devastating exotic species -- red mysid shrimp from the Baltic Sea -- in Muskegon Lake just off Lake Michigan.

Scientists said the shrimp had to have arrived in the ballast of an ocean-going ship, as have previous destructive and expensive invaders like zebra and quagga mussels, spiny water fleas and round gobies.

Mysids aren't true shrimp but related crustaceans, sometimes referred to as possum shrimp because the females hatch their eggs in a brood pouch. Some deep-sea mysids can reach a foot in length, but most are like the red mysids discovered in Muskegon, tiny things about a half-inch long.

The exotic mysids probably won't compete with native crustaceans, but biologists fear they will compete with juvenile gamefish and baby baitfish on which the game fish depend.

We've already seen salmon stocks collapse in Lake Huron following what seems to be a crash at the bottom of the food chain, probably the result of zebra mussels outcompeting an important native crustacean or introducing a disease that kills that crustacean.

Now biologists fear something similar could happen in the other Great Lakes if the mysids add to the overall biological pressure on native species. And even if all of the Great Lakes states and Ontario pass similar ballast control laws, the likelihood is that they would only slow down the introduction of exotics rather than stop them.

Ballast treatment systems depend on human engineering and control, which is fallible. The best-case scenarios put the effectiveness of ballast treatment and control somewhere in the 90% range.

There are over 180 exotic species in the Great Lakes today that weren't there when America became a nation, most of them arriving in the past century. The immigration rate skyrocketed in the past 20 years after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Great Lakes became a destination for ships from former Russian satellite countries.

A new invader arrives about every eight months. They include a disease called VHS that has killed huge numbers of fish in the past 18 months. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, VHS hasn't killed many fish that are important to anglers.

The feds have passed a rule requiring ocean-going ships to exchange their ballast far offshore in the ocean before entering the lakes, which would at least reduce the odds of new exotics getting in. But very few of those ships are inspected to make them prove they did the ballast exchange. Even sillier, if they declare that they are traveling NOBOB ("no ballast on board"), they're exempt from inspection.

That's like passing a law that says police can't stop drivers on New Year's Eve if they put a sign in the car window that says, "I haven't been drinking."

The answer to the problem is clear and simple: Stop all outside ship traffic into the Great Lakes. Studies show that we have the technology to do this, and that it would cost little, if anything. The increased shipping aboard trains and internal Great Lakes vessels might even boost the internal economies of the Great Lakes states, Ontario and Quebec.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Congress has stymied meaningful efforts to stop the ships and their dangerous biological cargoes.

While I don't wish any permanent harm to my fellow citizens, I sometimes wish that a few people would get sick from an exotic pathogen that was traced back to the ballast water of an ocean-going ship, something like the virus that made a few hundred people ill on some cruise ships recently. Those incidents were all over CNN, Fox News Channel and the network news programs for days.

If we suddenly had people getting sick from a "Great Lakes Virus" that got the same attention, I doubt that the federal government would continue to ignore the mess we now face.

Or maybe even better, a disease that killed millions of walleyes and had television news showing outraged sport fishermen lining their boats up across the Detroit River to block the passage of ocean-going vessels.

Actually, I suspect that we may soon see that kind of decimation among walleyes. Hey, with 500 or more salties coming into the lakes every year, the odds are certainly tipped in that direction.
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