There’s an urgency to “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes” by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Great Lakes reporter Dan Egan that reminds us there is still time to protect the fresh lakes and streams in the Adirondark Park. The book chronicles years of pollution, invasive species, and efforts to repair damage that in some cases changed the makeup of the five Great Lakes. And while the Great Lakes face different sets of challenges, you will recognize many of the issues – and some of the invasive species – because we’ve talked about them here.
We spoke with Dan Egan last month, in advance of his talk to the Lake Champlain Research Conference January 8. Egan speaks from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the Grand Maple Ballroom in the Davis Center of the University of Vermont in Burlington.
Why did you decide to write the book now?
I’d been covering great lakes issues at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel since 2003 and in 2011 I did a fellowship at Columbia University and I took a book writing seminar and part of that seminar was putting together a book proposal and in putting that proposal it kind of launched me on this odyssey of writing a book about what I’d been covering for more than a decade. It took me the better part of two years to actually write, but I think it’s timely because we’re just now beginning to understand the devastation that all these invasive species have done to the Great Lakes and that the Great Lakes are just a beachhead for invasions that will inevitably spread across the continent, both east and west.
Did your research give you an indication of where the invasive species might move next?
Ever since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959, we’ve gotten, I think now it’s over 60 non-native species and once these things get a foothold in the lakes—the Great Lakes I’m talking about—it’s really hard to eradicate them and it’s hard to keep them from spreading, so we have a key pitch point on the continent and it’s called the St. Lambert Lock and it’s on the St. Lawrence Seaway and it’s 80 feet wide and when we open that door to ocean going ships and whatever may be lurking in their ballast tanks we’re exposing the whole continent to this potential biological mischief, so it’s important that we do everything we can to stop those invasions at that door and I’m not talking about stopping the ships necessarily, I’m talking about demanding that the ships carry with them ballast treatment systems that will adequately protect the continent from the next invasion. The shipping industry has bristled a bit at this and they consider it very costly, but these invaders have cost the continent billions of dollars and if we can’t work this out with a technological solution, maybe the solution is political and maybe it’s don’t let those ships in until they can figure out how to safely treat their ballast water.
It doesn’t look like the current administration is interested in strengthening environmental protections or the Clean Water Act …
No it doesn’t, and there’s a movement in congress to move ballast water management away from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and turn it over exclusively to the Coast Guard, which would effectively pull Clean Water Act protections for the Great Lakes and all other U.S. waters in terms of invasive species out of the purview of the Clean Water Act. That would be a step backward, and that would be a shame given what we know. It’s tempting to think that we’ve seen the worst, that after zebra and quagga muscles came and then round gobies that things couldn’t get any worse, but that’s kind of folly because nobody knew what a zebra mussel was and a quagga mussel until they collectively became this billion dollar problem, so who knows what’s lurking in what port anywhere on the globe that is just itching to make the jump into the fresh waters of the U.S. and Canada. It kind of reminds me of that apocryphal talk about the patent office at the turn of the 20th Century when they talked about closing it because there was nothing new worth inventing. In a way I think it’s a similar situation with invasive species and the Great Lakes and, by extension, all U.S. waters.
You say in your introduction that the greatest threat to the Great Lakes is our ignorance. Do you think people seem to be paying more attention now?
It takes a while for people to get their head around the idea that an organism can be just as troublesome and toxic as anything that comes out of a smokestack or a factory pipe, but it can. I think people are starting to understand that. But again, we’re talking about an administration that hasn’t shown a great interest in maintaining existing protections let alone stiffening them so there’s reason to be a little worried that the story isn’t completely told, that it isn’t over.
What words of caution or lessons would you share with the Adirondacks?
Because I write from the Great Lakes perspective, I really am interested in stopping problems, at least related to invasive species, at the door. But there are universal issues facing our fresh waters and invasive species are a big one, but they’re not the only one. Phosphorus overloads are a problem everywhere creating these toxic algae blooms. I’d imagine you’re aware of what happened in Lake Erie a few years back with Toledo losing its drinking water because of toxic algae outbreaks because of an overdose of fertilizer running into the western basin. That fertilizer problem isn’t unique to Lake Erie. It’s everywhere. It’s here, in the south and I’d imagine you have issues with it as well.
What did you learn in your research about closing off invasives?
It’s kind of like chasing horses out of the barn, but it’s necessary. I went out west and saw the extent that they’re going to try to keep new water bodies and new watersheds from becoming infected. I know if they get into the Columbia River basin, with all the hydroelectric power plants up there, they’re talking a multi-billion dollar problem. Really, the first and most important thing is prevention, and that comes through education. If you can’t prevent, then vigilance. Letting people understand that these mussels aren’t just innocent little fingernail-sized organisms that will coexist with everything else in the water. They don’t really have any natural predators other than round gobies, another invasive fish, on the continent. I grew up in Green Bay in the 1970s and it was pretty polluted from an industrial standpoint but up on Northern Green Bay it was still really nice and water was swimmable and fishable and today it still is. But I don’t swim in it without wearing those damn aqua socks. I know people who have had to go on antibiotics for mussel cuts and it feels like something’s been taken from us when you can no longer just take your shoes off and jump in the water and not worry about getting slashed up. I don’t have any magic words, other than education and vigilance and to keep an eye on the bigger picture that the gateway to all this trouble has historically been the St. Lawrence Seaway. The shipping industry has done a lot in the last ten years in terms of requiring ships visiting the lakes to flush their ballast tanks with ocean saltwater to expel or kill freshwater hitchhikers, but we can’t sterilize a hospital room, and there’s no reason to think that would adequately treat a ballast tank that can hold millions of gallons of water. In fact, it’s been announced the finding of two new invasive species in Lake Erie just in the last year. So the door is still open and that’s just important for people to know. Shipping on the Great Lakes is a big, important business and nobody wants to see it go away, but it’s the overseas component of that business that has brought all these problems and that component is relatively small. It’s somewhere less than five percent of the overall tonnage shipped on the lakes. That in and of itself is not a huge business. And these ships are not bringing in high value finished goods. They typically bring in steel and take out grain and there are other options for moving those cargoes if we can’t get this ballast problem solved. Nobody likes to see the lake that they loved as a kid change dramatically and quickly and that’s what we had happen here and I imagine that’s what you’re seeing over there as well.
Not yet. I think there’s still a lot of hope in the Adirondacks to keep invasives out.
I think the inspection stations are critical and just people becoming aware their boats can be vectors every bit as much as an overseas freighter and to take care to not recklessly dump your bilge water or launch a boat that hasn’t had its hull adequately cleaned or decontaminated.
We have inspection stations, but not everywhere. And we do have some zebra mussels in Lake George, few enough that citizen volunteers take them out by hand.
Nature’s a mad, complicated thing. We had quagga mussels in Lake Michigan since the early nineties but they were just a bit player until 2003 or 2004 and now they make up 99 percent of the invasive mussel population in the lake and it just flipped. There are things that control mussels that are built in and that’s calcium content of the water. Here in Wisconsin we’ve got thousands of inland lakes and they can tell which ones are susceptible to a mussel invasion by looking at primarily just calcium. If the calcium’s not there, you’re not going to get that kind of infestation. On Lake Superior the water chemistry is a little different, just enough that they do have mussels but they don’t run the show like they do the lower lakes.
You’re going to be the keynote speaker in Burlington at the Lake Champlain Research Conference, What can you share with them regarding Lake Champlain?
I know Lake Champlain has a lot of similar issues to the Great Lakes and in a lot of people’s minds a Great Lake.
Didn’t they try to add it?
They tried to. But I think that was mostly so they could be eligible for Lamprey-control money because that goes through the Great Lakes Commission. I wrote in the book about the hunt for the perfect poison for the lamprey. They still have to apply that every year. It’s like a chronic illness and that’s the medicine. I know that there’s a similar dynamic in Lake Champlain between the lake trout and the lamprey and they do a chronic treatment program. I think if they could have gotten the lake federally designated as a Great Lake. Lake Champlain is not in the Great Lakes watershed so there’s a good hydrologic and scientific, not just political, argument to not have it be a Great Lake. That being said, it’s a lake that is great.
The Explorer wrote earlier this year about its issues with alewives.
They’re kind of death to lake trout because they have an enzyme that if a lake trout eats alewives, they’re going to have babies that won’t make it to maturity, so if you can get rid of the alewives it’s good for the lake trout. It’s not good for the salmon because salmon are kind of built to eat the alewives and salmon drive the sport fishery on the Great Lakes, but they’re no more native to the lakes than the Asian carp that everyone is afraid of. You’ve got an east coast invader, alewives, being preyed upon by a Pacific predator – Chinook salmon – that were literally flown in on airplanes back in the 1960s from Oregon. It’s not as natural as some people think it is.
That was striking in the book, the turnover in species.
I try not to point fingers with all the luxury of the hindsight we have now. I try to understand and tell the stories in the context of it seemed like a good idea at the time. We had a serious alewives problem and the salmon really did a lot to solve it and they created this multi-billion dollar recreational fishery but that was when we had top of the food chain problems and now because of the mussels we have bottom of the food chain problems and that’s rippling up all the way to the salmon. It doesn’t look like they’re going to have the bright future they’ve had for the last 50 years.