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Editorial: Batten down hatches vs. more invasive species in lake

Ducks swim in the frigid waters of Lake Michigan in January. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes require constant surveillance to prevent invasive species from sneaking in and disrupting the ecosystem. Now, it’s time to move the surveillance efforts back to full alert. A bill in the U.S. Senate that would relax rules on ballast water discharged from oceangoing ships is posing a new threat.

Ships take on ballast water to maintain stability when their cargo holds are empty. They pump out the water when it’s time to load up with cargo. But the water can carry live organisms from one side of the world to the other, and those organisms are happy to set up housekeeping in a new environment, unchecked by their natural predators.

Zebra mussels and quagga mussels, which came from the Caspian and Black seas, are among the non-native invaders that arrived in Lake Michigan via ballast water when environmental rules were too lax. Now they are everywhere, fouling water intakes, competing with native species for food and costing state and local government staggering sums. No one has come up with a viable plan for getting rid of them.


Because of the damage, rules have been put in place to vastly reduce the amount of aquatic nuisances that are transported from one place to another. Since 2013, ships have been required to dump their ballast before entering the Great Lakes, although some organisms survive that process. But the American Waterways operators, a trade group, argues that having to meet both state and federal standards means the “added cost of superfluous regulations” hurts the industry’s competitiveness.

But the “Commercial Vessel Incidental Discharge Act” introduced by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., would do away with federal laws regulating discharges from ships and would remove states’ power to act on their own to protect their aquatic ecosystems. Ballast water now is controlled under the Clean Water Act, but this bill would eliminate protections under the act, and limit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to an advisory role.

Thomas Delany Jr./tdelany@scn1.com The cockpit filled with quagga mussels of a WWII Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber that was pulled from the water at Larsen Marine in Waukegan. A&T Recovery of Chicago salvaged the plane in 315 feet of water at 25 miles from shore in Lake Michigan. The plane is bound to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. The Douglas was credited with winning the Battle of Midway and turning the tide of the Pacific war in America's favor. 4/24/09

The cockpit of a World War II-era dive bomber pulled from Lake Michigan in 2009 shows how invasive quagga mussels have proliferated in the lake. | Thomas Delaney Jr.

Environmentalists and local leaders fear the law could be a Welcome Wagon for new alien plants, fish, eggs, viruses and bacteria, with devastating effects. Already, more than 180 non-native species have disrupted the ecosystem in the Great Lakes. It’s so bad that environmentalists estimate quagga mussels in Lake Michigan now outnumber the fish in all of the world’s oceans combined.

In a Feb. 15 letter to U.S. Senate leaders, a bipartisan group of attorneys general from 10 states, including Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, called for rejecting the law.

“The Commercial Vessel Act would dramatically weaken defenses against aquatic invasive species discharged in the ballast water of big ships by eliminating key legal protections,” they wrote. “ … [The bill] increases the risks of infestations by this dangerous and costly form of biological pollution.”

The law is backed by oceangoing commercial shippers and cruise ship operators serving the East, West and Gulf coasts, whose costs can be driven up by environmental regulations.

But there are ecological costs, too, and they wouldn’t be felt just in the Great Lakes region. Aquatic environments from Chesapeake Bay to San Francisco Bay are struggling with invasive species, many brought in by ships. Washington State’s lucrative commercial shellfish industry is threatened by 94 types of aquatic invaders.

The “Commercial Vessel Incidental Discharge Act” is similar to bills that have been defeated in the past. But protecting the lakes will be a bigger challenge under the Trump administration, which has indicated environmental protection will be less of a priority. Defenders of the Great Lakes will have to work even harder to fend off regulatory and legislative assaults.

Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes are incredible assets, and they will become more so as water becomes an increasingly important resource. They need all the help we can give them.

We learn when a new invasive species has come to town only when it is too late and the damage has been done. Representatives of the Great Lakes region should insist that environmental protections are not weakened.