The Tale of The Great Lakes
The Great Lakes, as well as other aquatic systems, have seen the accidental import of many invasive species. Some, as it turns out, are stronger than the native forms which dramatically changes local conditions and not always for the good.
Amidst the public battle over handling of the Asian carp threat in the Great Lakes, there is good news on the invasive species front. A New York State appellate court dismissed a challenge brought by shipping interests against the state’s tough new ballast water requirements, which are designed to limit the introduction of more invasive species into the Great Lakes. This is the second time that the state, with help from intervening Non-Government Organizations, has successfully defended the ballast water restrictions in court.
The Asian carp is the particular culprit in this case, including the bighead carp and the silver carp. Other species include the quagga mussel that now carpets the bottom of Lake Michigan. The population of prey fish, which sustain big fish like salmon, has dropped to less than 10% of what it was before invasive mussels arrived two decades ago.
An invasive species is an animal or plant that moves into a new environment, often badly disrupting it. Invasive species are becoming more common, in part because of international trade, which allows easy and accidental transport of wildlife from one corner of the world to another, and partly due to climate change, which prompts species to migrate to more hospitable environments, often at the expense of those that already live there.
The Asian carp are particularly dangerous. Native to China and parts of Southeast Asia, the freshwater carp have been cultivated for aquaculture for more than 1,000 years, often raised in submerged rice paddies. Catfish farmers in the U.S. imported the carp decades ago to eat up the algae in their ponds; the fish slowly escaped into the wild and have been making their way up the Mississippi river.
Due to the environmental threat posed by invasive species, lawyers from NRDC intervened in the shipping industry lawsuit alongside the State of New York. The Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, Third Judicial Department, rejected shipping industry arguments that the New York ballast water regulations were illegal because they were stricter than the U.S. EPA's nationwide discharge permit.
“Today’s court decision is an important victory in the ongoing saga to protect our majestic Great Lakes from invasive species.” said Marc Smith, Policy Manager with National Wildlife Federation. “Requiring the shipping industry to install effective protections against these invaders is long over due. Now more than ever do we need aggressive federal action to help reinforce New York’s leadership to ensure a more comprehensive defense policy against invasive species."
The New York court's ruling that states have authority to adopt ballast water rules that are more protective than federal standards is consistent with the decision last year in a lower state court as well as the federal appeals court in Cincinnati to uphold Michigan's ballast water rules against a similar shipping industry challenge.
The Great Lakes are a unique ecosystem representing 1/5 of the Earth's surface fresh water, but the vitality of the ecosystem has been threatened by alien species that have wreaked havoc on native fish and plants. Over 150+ invasive species have been identified in the Great Lakes since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959. 65% of these invasive species introductions have been attributed to ballast water.
The Canadian and U.S. operators of the St. Lawrence Seaway have begun requiring freighters to flush their ship steadying ballast tanks with ocean saltwater to kill or expel any unwanted organisms before they arrive in the Great Lakes.
Marine advocates say the flushing largely has solved the ballast problem, and point to the fact that no new species have been detected in the lakes since late 2006. Others disagree.