Author William Rapai, a former newspaper reporter and amateur naturalist, recently published his second book Lake Invaders: Invasive Species and the Battle for the Future of the Great Lakes. MetroMode’s (of Metro Detroit) Kirk Haverkamp interviewed him for a preview of his perspective on the environmental, economic, and political aspects of fighting back against non-native species in the Great Lakes Basin.
Haverkamp and Rapai discuss how ‘invasive species’ was not coined as a term until the 1990s; other examples of invasive species effects from Hawaii, New Zealand, and North America (did you know the dandelion was brought over from Europe as a food source?); how non-native species invaded the Great Lakes via the Welland Canal and ballast water from ocean liners; potential beneficial effects of invasive species, and more.
Below is an excerpt from the interview which covers the domino effect invasives can have on ecosystems and tourist industry, and the legal loopholes which prevent effective enforcement to deal with the issues.
MM: Alewives, which used to be a huge problem, are mostly gone?
WR: Yes. One of the things I’m fond of talking about is the cascading effects these invasive species have had over the years. When the alewives first came in, their population in Lake Michigan alone was somewhere around a trillion fish at one time. That’s a lot of fish.
So when the Michigan Department of Natural Resources decided to stock Lake Michigan with salmon, the salmon had a ready-made food source.
But now, because of the quagga and zebra mussels, the amount of plankton in the lakes has been significantly cut, so the alewife population (which feeds on plankton) is pretty much gone in Lake Huron, and it is falling very rapidly in Lake Michigan.
And because the alewife is gone is Lake Huron, the salmon population there has followed that decline. There’s practically no salmon left in Lake Huron, and as the alewife population continues to decline in Lake Michigan, the salmon population is also going to continue to decline there as well.
MM: And that’s a big impact for the sport fishery?
WR: Towns like Frankfurt and Muskegon and Ludington, where a lot of charter fishing is based, are really beginning to hurt a little bit because of the lack of people coming back from previous years. People are realizing that those fish that they used to catch, which were once so plentiful, are no longer there.
It seems that one of the big challenges is coordinating policy. I think a lot of people would be surprised to learn that states have primary authority on invasive species management, rather than the federal government.
Because there’s nothing in the Constitution that says the federal government shall have control over the Great Lakes, it becomes a matter of state control. Now, what happens when all the states surrounding the Great Lakes and the provinces of Canada have conflicting interests?
That’s what we are seeing with Asian Carp in Chicago-area waterways. You’ve got Michigan saying “No, we don’t want those carp here in our Great Lakes” and Illinois and Indiana saying “Yes, we don’t want the carp here either, but we also want to keep this canal open, because it’s a direct waterway to the Great Lakes.”
MM: That also relates to the problem of enforcement. You talk in your book about a ship emptying ballast water that may have organisms in it, but the state of Michigan can’t hold the ship for testing.
WR: Right. The State of Michigan has absolutely no authority to stop a ship because the federal government has authority in this matter, due to the interstate commerce clause in the Constitution.
And that means the State of Michigan and the State of Wisconsin cannot go on board a ship and seize it or stop it or tell it to stop dumping ballast water. And that limits what a state can do to protect its own water and its environment.
MM: It often seems like there’s an awful lot of hoops to go through before you can take action. For example, you have to be able to prove a species is a threat before you can ban it.
WR: You’re right. And because of the federal government’s policy, the Lacey Act of 1900, we have largely been playing from behind. The Lacey Act says that harmful organisms can’t be imported into the United States. But you can only know that it is harmful after it has been here and has become established, and you can show that it is injurious to plants or wildlife in the United States. In that way, it is innocent until proven guilty.
Well, we need to flip that on its head and say it’s guilty until proven innocent.