By JON GASKELL
Capital News Service
LANSING– Beware the Northern snakehead. Beware the inland silverside. And beware a host of other invasive species poised to devastate the Great Lakes.
That’s the fear, as a recent report recommends spending billions to separate the Mississippi River from the Great Lakes to stop the spread of Asian carp.
But according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, there are 36 other “high-risk invasive species” that might migrate through Chicago waterways and have the potential to wreak ruin on native ecosystems.
Of these 39 species, 10 could migrate into the Great Lakes from the Mississippi, potentially causing huge environmental damage, the agency said.
“Asian carp are sort of the canary in the coal mine,” said Jared Teutsch of the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes. “They could be the first in, but there are many other threats.”
And Dennis Fijalkowski, executive director of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy in Bath said, “Every six months, we find a new species in the Great Lakes. It’s got to stop.”
For example, the Cuban bulrush and marsh dewflower are two aquatic plant species the Corps of Engineers warns could crowd out other plant life and degrade fish habitats. The Cuban bulrush is native to South America and the marsh dewflower comes from Asia. Both plants have taken root across the southeastern U.S. but could spread to the Great Lakes basin.
The inland silverside, a 6-inch fish, has made its way up the Mississippi to northern Illinois. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the silverside could harm the Great Lakes ecosystem by competing with native species for plankton.
The silverside already has significantly damaged fish populations in California, where its introduction led to the extinction of other species, the Geological Survey said.
On the other end of the food chain is the northern snakehead, a predatory, pike-like fish that can grow up to 3 feet long and is known for its ability to breathe on land for up to four days at a time and migrate between bodies of water up to one-quarter mile apart.
“They’re a disaster in the making,” Fijalkowski said. “At the rate they reproduce we would be overwhelmed quickly.”
Originally imported to the U.S. from China,
Russia and Korea as an aquarium fish, the snakehead now has established populations in Maryland, Virginia, Arkansas, Pennsylvania and New York. With a voracious appetite and no natural predators, the snakehead could destroy large populations of native fish and out-compete them for food.
“Hopefully they’ll eat the Asian carp too,” Fijalkowski said.
The Army Corps of Engineers has confirmed multiple sightings of the northern snakehead throughout the Mississippi basin, plus one sighting in Lake Michigan, caught by an angler near Chicago in 2004.
In response to the invasive species threat, a Great Lakes Commission report recommends separation of the Mississippi and Lake Michigan, which currently connect by a series of canals in Chicago.
The report calls for cutting off water flow between the canals and Lake Michigan with a series of barriers. The plan would cost between $3.26 billion and $9.5 billion, depending on how much money is allocated for stormwater management and transportation upgrades.
“Physically separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds is the best long-term solution for preventing the movement of Asian carp and other aquatic invasive species, and our report demonstrates that it can be done,” said Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission, one of the groups that authored the report.
But Unlock Our Jobs, a coalition of groups opposed to closing the waterways, said implementing the report’s recommendation would harm Chicago shipping and cost the region billions.
“It’s time we move on to maintaining and improving current barriers, as well as implementing comprehensive solutions across the region,” said Mark Biel, executive director of the coalition, “Separation simply isn’t one of them.”
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and U.S. Rep. Dave Camp, R-Midland, both sponsors of legislation seeking to separate the two ecosystems, support the commission’s report.
“We must act now to protect the Great Lakes and the hundreds of thousands of jobs that depend on them,” Stabenow said.
And Camp said, “This study shows that hydrological separation is both technically and economically feasible.”
© 2012, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.