Fight to Protect Our Great Lakes

Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa & Chippewa Indians Tribal Councilor Derek Bailey

Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa & Chippewa Indians Tribal Councilor Derek Bailey

Guest Commentary

Invasive species are not a new problem, but they are becoming an issue that demands our attention and immediate resources.

Since the 1800s, more than 180 nonindigenous aquatic species from around the world have become established in the Great Lakes’ ecosystem. In recent years the introduction and proliferation of several invasive species has become a critical issue for our environment and our economy.

An “invasive species” is a plant or animal that is non-native (or alien) to an ecosystem, and whose introduction is likely to cause economic, human health, or environmental damage in that ecosystem. Once established, it is extremely difficult to control their spread. During the past two centuries, invasive species have significantly changed the Great Lakes ecosystem.

Invasive species impact and threaten native ecosystems by interfering with critical components of the food chain, overwhelming native species’ defense mechanisms causing drastic population decreases, being unpalatable or toxic to wildlife, and disrupting mutualistic relationships. As a result of invasive species, culturally important species are declining, and with them is the possibility of tragically losing the traditional ecological knowledge related to those species.

Earlier this year the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a comprehensive series that commenced with an article entitled, “How invasive species changed the Great Lakes forever,” noting that just in the past 25 years zebra mussels and quagga mussels have turned the Great Lakes’ ecosystem upside down.

It is absolutely imperative that funding such as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) continue and expand in the coming years. The GLRI is the result of a task force of eleven federal agencies, and the work and dollars are focused in and around Michigan. Such funding allows recipients to increase the effectiveness of existing surveillance programs by establishing a coordinated multi-species detection network. Development of state and tribal aquatic nuisance species management plans is key to long-term management solutions.

Other competitive grant programs need to continue funding new initiatives that block pathways through which invasive species can be introduced to the Great Lakes ecosystem, while risk assessments should continue to be refined in an effort to direct the targeting of species, pathways and sites for early detection monitoring.

The Great Lakes themselves are a pathway for invasion of alien species to 31 states within the Mississippi River watershed and beyond. Thus not only are the Great Lakes and their tributaries threatened by invasion of Asian carp, but the Mississippi basin is threatened with invasive species already in the Great Lakes. With this knowledge we must adamantly and diligently protect these fragile systems with our utmost ability.

Congress should appropriate funding to construct a permanent separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi waterways to prevent this cross-migration. The Great Lakes Commission commissioned a study to identify engineering options for Chicago’s waterway system that would prevent interbasin movement of aquatic invasive species, including Asian carp. The feasibility study also examined potential improvements to the waterway’s roles in commercial navigation, recreational boating, flood and stormwater management, and water quality.

The connection between the waterways is just part of the problem. Invasive species carried to the Great Lakes in ballast water already have been so destructive to the Great Lakes fishery resources so important to GTB and the other tribal signatories to the Treaty of 1836. For example, quagga mussels have devastated fish stocks in portions of the Great Lakes and also contributed to the massive algal blooms occurring on Lake Erie and in other areas of the Great Lakes.

Yet we must be vigilant, not give up hope, and focus our attention and resources on this critical problem.

Derek J. Bailey, MSW, is the former Tribal Chairman and current Tribal Councilor for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. Derek is also coprincipal at 7th Legacy Consulting, LLC.

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