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Joe Sugiyama: Guarding the Great Lakes

By Joe Sugiyama, Daily Opinion Columnist
Published April 9, 2012

I remember the summer that zebra mussels finally made it to Platte Lake — an annual vacation spot for my family near Traverse City in Northern Michigan. It doesn’t stand out in my mind because I was appalled by the ecological havoc caused by the invasive species — those aren’t exactly the thoughts of a 10-year-old. No, I remember that summer because I sliced my foot on one of the mussel’s sharp shells and didn’t catch a damn fish the entire trip because the natural food chain in the lake had been thrown out of whack.

Though my first run-in with the mollusks was about 12 years ago, the zebra mussels have been running rampant in the Great Lakes for about 25 years, ever since they were dumped by a European ship’s infested ballast water. In that time, they’ve been outcompeting native species for resources and blanketing the lakebeds to such an extent that scientists claim that there is no way to reverse the damage done. Our only hope is to mitigate the situation as best we can.

Enter the U.S. Coast Guard.

In addition to protecting the people on our shores, the Coast Guard is also interested in saving the shores themselves. As of last month, the Coast Guard issued a federal rule that requires all seafaring ships traveling via the St. Lawrence Seaway from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes to install onboard ballast water treatment systems. A ship’s ballast water is typically taken from the ocean, used for stability as it travels and is then discharged into the Great Lakes once the ship no longer needs it. This discharge is where invasive species such as zebra mussels have been successfully stowed for years.

This water treatment system would most likely include some sort of filtration coupled with a disinfection agent. But one of the biggest problems facing ship owners is the reduction in cargo space taken up by the new water treatment system. Small and sleek will be the name of the ballast water management game — a game that, according to an April 7 New York Times article, will generate about $35 billion in revenue in ten years as the new rules are implemented.

One drawback with the Coast Guard’s new regulations is the speed at which it’s moving. The rule will only be enforced on newly built ships. Those already on the water will be allowed to continue without the new systems until they need maintenance, which means that it could be 2021 before the new rule fully takes effect.

Thom Cmar, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, claims that “the industry’s had fair warning that this was coming,” and such a long grace period for those ships already on the water is “unjustified,” as reported in the article.

A similar sentiment seems to have taken hold of the environmentalist community, which is concerned that Europe’s current “killer shrimp” issue — a predatory species invading from West Asia — could quickly become a problem in the Great Lakes. According to the Times article, biologist Tom Nalepa seems to think that if these freshwater shrimp make it to the Great Lakes, they’re “going to cause as many changes as the zebra mussel.”

It’s pretty great something is finally being done about the whole irreversible invasive species situation we have going on in the Great Lakes. But I think we may be a little better served addressing these environmental issues before there isn’t a solution for them. I’m not trying to minimize any of the efforts currently underway by the Coast Guard or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — who are expected to come out with their own regulations on ballast water by the end of the year — but nipping these issues in the bud as they’re happening is the key to protecting our most valuable resources.

The Coast Guard’s new regulations are a tremendous first step, but it’s unacceptable to not have the regulation in full swing for another nine years. This new ballast water treatment requirement for ships is something that needs to be done promptly, before another summer of fishing is ruined by a bunch of killer shrimp.

Since I’m graduating, this will be my last column for The Michigan Daily and I want to thank anyone who found time in their day to read my work over the past couple years.

Joe Sugiyama can be reached at jmsugi@umich.edu or on Twitter @JoeSugiyama. This is Joe's last column, and he would like to thank those who found time to read his work over the last two years.


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