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Enviro-Carnage of the St. Lawrence Waterway

Today I went to a Question and Answer type of forum about the environmental carnage brought to the Great Lakes by the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959. The forum was held by a guy named Jeff Alexander who wrote the book Pandora's Locks. A pretty awesome name for a book on the subject of invasive species.

Mr. Alexander also brings up the question of whether we should consider closing up the St. Lawrence Seaway completely, which connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean through a series of locks. The cost of fighting the havoc from the invasive species, environmentally and financially, outweighs the financial reward of having it at all.

I learned quite a bit of new stuff about these Great Lakes and the trials facing them. I'm going to try to list off the new stuff I've learned for anybody out there who's interested.

Before I start, here's a basic primer. Ships use "ballast water" to keep the right buoyancy in the water depending on how much cargo they're carrying. When ocean faring ships enter the Great Lakes from a salt water environment into a fresh water environment, they're less buoyant so they have to get rid of ballast water so they don't sink. The ballast water is water they picked up in their home port and it contains all sorts of exotic species from back home. When they dump it, those new species get introduced into the great lakes.

Ballast water is a huge problem.

Okay. Here's what I learned.


1. Quagga mussels have pretty much wiped out zebra mussels in Lake Michigan and much of Huron. That was news to me. In fact, zebra mussels are on the wane everywhere in the Great Lakes, because of the Quagga's.

2. Alewives, an invasive species which once made up a staggeringly huge percentage of biomass of the Great Lakes are mostly gone. Again, because of the quagga mussels.

3. Quagga mussels are about the same size as zebra mussels, but they eat more, multiply faster, can attach to ANYTHING, and can live in colder water...so they can live at depths of 400 feet down or further where zebra mussels could only live 100 feet down. Which means there's more quagga mussels eating more of the base of the food chain...there are trillions in Lake Michigan and they each filter up to a liter of water per day.

4. Quagga mussels that live near the shore have a high concentration of botulism. The goby, another invasive species, eats the mussels, so the goby have even higher concentrations of botulism. Aquatic birds eat the goby, are paralyzed, their heads drop into the water and they drown. Tens of thousands of waterfowl have died this way (70,000 if memory serves).

5. We spend 20 million dollars a year keeping the lamprey eel at bay. We've reduced their numbers by 90% since their peak, and they'd take over again in a second if we stopped controlling them.

6. Closing the St. Lawrence Seaway would result in a net gain of 1200 (or was it 1400?) jobs. If the seafaring ships transferred their cargo to rail or to a "laker" or lake faring ship.

7. Quagga mussels (and zebra mussels) filter the water so thoroughly that algae grows deeper in the lake and denser. Algae blooms clog up water intakes making for more expensive water...they also clog up water intakes used to cool nuclear power plants, causing the plants to shut down (if we're lucky) to clean the intakes. Each day a plant is shut down costs the plant $2 million for which is is never reimbursed.

8. Lake Superior apparently doesn't have the calcium content to support the vast numbers of quagga mussels the other great lakes do. So that's kinda good.

9. For thirty years after the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway salt water ballast was dumped into the great lakes with impunity and no regulation at all.

10. In 1981 (I believe) a Canadian agency study showed that ballast water in ships was teaming with life, with over 2 million larval zebra mussels and hundreds of other critters.

11. In 1981 the Canadian and United States Coast Guard and environmental regulators ignored the studies.

12. The next twenty years had lax oversight and poorly enforced ballast flushing rules. Though the rules got tougher as the threat of invasive species became more apparent the EPA and Coast Guard failed to enforce the ballast regulations.

13. Ships that were laden down with goods had very little ballast water when they entered the waterway...too little to pump out, so they couldn't remove their ballast or flush it...though there was still enough to support a lot of species. But when they got to their destination in the Great Lakes and unloaded their cargo, they needed take on ballast water from their unloading point...and the waters would mix. Then the ship would go to pick up new cargo on the Great Lakes on their way out to the ocean and they'd then DUMP the mixed water into the Great Lakes.

14. The St. Lawrence Waterway never did reach the traffic that was predicted in the 1950s. Never even came close. It peaked in the 1970s and is a quarter of what it was then. Dealing with the consequences of the invasive species is beginning to be more costly than what the seaway brings in. It now threatens the milti-billion dollar commercial fishing industry of the Great Lakes.

15. A little good news. A very rare snake on the islands of Lake Erie were on the brink of extinction until the invasive goby infested the lake, to the tune of 10 billion gobies. Turns out the snakes LOVE 'em, and the snake's numbers are rising like crazy.

There's quite a bit more, but somehow I can't tease it out of my mind right now. I'm going to be purchasing the book once I have a spare Hamilton or two, then you'll really get an eyeful of info.

The author doesn't believe much can be done to eradicate the invasive species that have established themselves. He feels it's just something that will have to be sorted out over time to reach a new equilibrium, unfortunately. Though a couple of Great Lakes scientists at the forum said they could create an early response team if they had the funding...showing up where a ballast dump occurred and taking steps to eradicate new species before they get a foothold.