Now Is The Time For All Men to Defend Against the Round Goby
Now that Minnesota has joined Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania in a war on the Illinois shipping industry, I am reminded of the perils of the round goby.
The round goby is a bug-eyed fish of prey that entered the Great Lakes in the ballast tanks of ocean freighters two decades ago and now is multiplying in great numbers in Lake Michigan. Their population explosion has raised alarms that they may endanger native fish and beneficial invasive species, such as salmon. (Read a report of the perils and benefits of the round goby here.)
If this sounds familiar, more recent alarms are being raised about an invasion of Asian carp, and the possibility that they would wipe out the commercial and sport fishing industry in the Great Lakes. (I have previously written about the carp warnings here, here and here.)
To halt the spread of the carp, those five states have filed suit in the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking to force Illinois to close the locks leading from the Mississippi watershed into the Great Lakes. The action would cripple, if not destroy, inland shipping between the two watersheds via the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
If it’s war they want, I’d suggest that Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan file a countersuit against those states, seeking a closure of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a system of locks, dams and canals through which the round goby and other invasive species have made and are making their way into the Great Lakes.
The Seaway sustains more than 150,000 American jobs, $4.3 billion in personal income, $3.5 billion in transportation-related business revenue and $1.3 billion in federal state and local taxes, according to the U.S. St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation’s 2008 annual report. No small part of these benefits enrich such Great Lakes cities as Detroit (not that it needs any help), Toledo, Duluth, Erie and Milwaukee, located in the states that are suing Illinois.
Over the years, the seaway has imported vastly more invasive species into the Great Lakes as compared with what gets into the lakes through the Illinois locks. One can legitimately ask: if it is important enough to justify the closing of the Illinois locks and strangling the inland shipping industry, maybe its also important enough to shut down the entire St. Lawrence Seaway before it lets in any more destructive marauders.
Here are some of the seaway’s introductions, some from as far away as the Caspian Sea via ocean-going ships, of aggressive invasive species to the Great Lakes:
- Sea Lamprey, a large, parasitic creature that feeds on whitefish, lake trout and other commercially important species. The lamprey, introduced into the lakes decades ago, perhaps has been the most devastating of all introductions. It attaches itself by its mouth to its victims and figuratively sucks its prey to death. The lamprey continues to be a Great Lakes problem.
- Zebra mussels were discovered in the 1960s and in just a few years were wrecking havoc with the Chicago water system. According to one report, scientists consider zebra mussels more destructive of the Great Lakes ecosystem than nutrient and toxic pollutants combined.
- The spiny water flea is not an insect, but a crustacean, less than a half-inch long, possessing a long, sharp, barbed tail spine. It first was discovered in 1984 in Lake Huron, and its explosive population has some experts worried that the creatures compete aggressively with young perch and other small fish for food.
- Ruffe rarely grow larger than 5 inches but females can lay from 45,000 to 90,000 eggs a year. Their sharp spines make them difficult for larger fish to eat, thus ensuring their spread.
- White perch showed up in the 1950s, an prolifically compete with native fish, such as walleyes, for food.
I could go on, but why bother? Once the environmental constabulary gets something in its head, stopping the Asian carp looks simple by comparison. Especially if the constabulary gets to ding their favorite targets—industry—at the same time. The irony, though, is that they’re setting a precedent that could have a much greater impact on the economy than just the Chicago area. Their half-cocked insistence on permanently closing the Illinois locks, taken to its logical extreme, could devastate the entire Great Lakes shipping industry.
Dennis Byrne is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer