Home to more than 30 million Americans, the Great Lakes region boasts a $7 billion commercial, recreational and tribal fisheries industry, which is reliant on a healthy ecosystem to thrive. Unfortunately, non-native species have taken hold in many of the lakes and surrounding wetlands and habitat. These aquatic and terrestrial invasive species are altering the basic functions of the Great Lakes and its connected waterways, disrupting fisheries and wildlife, hurting outdoor recreation, harming the economy, damaging infrastructure, and disrupting our way of life.
One of the biggest threats to Great Lakes fisheries and the broader Great Lakes economy is the invasive Asian Carp species, which already worked its way through the Mississippi River Watershed. Asian Carp has wrought profound economic and ecological damage in the ecosystems in which it has taken root. In places like the Illinois River, these invasive fish take over and make up 90 percent of the aquatic life present. In addition to the immense environmental damage they have caused, they present a threat to boaters—as the large fish, when startled by boats, jump out of the water and harm humans.
It is imperative to stop the invasive Asian Carp from entering the Great Lakes. Chief among prevention methods are the construction of new defenses to repel the fish at Brandon Road Lock and Dam in Illinois, which would provide a crucial block for Asian Carp to enter the Great Lakes watershed from the Mississippi River watershed, where it has already taken hold.
The Brandon Road Lock and Dam is a proposed project that would be built on the Chicago River, below where it meets Lake Michigan. This project would provide a partial separation between the two watersheds, providing extra defense against Asian carp. Congress is poised to authorize construction of the project, which will follow the completion of preliminary engineering designs. A final agreement allowing the blueprints to be drawn up between the Army Corps and Illinois, where the project will be built is still pending.
Asian carp are not the only species threatening the Great Lakes – nor is the connection between the Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River the only means by which invasive species can enter the great lakes. Another way invasive species can enter the Great Lakes comes from the ballast water, which ships take on to ensure consistent displacement as cargo is loaded and unloaded. This water is transported from port to port, and with it comes all manner of aquatic life, native and invasive. These vessels have the responsibility to not pollute waters with their discharge. Under the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA), the US EPA has the authority to protect U.S. waters from harmful biological pollution and needs to set strong standards that protect our Great Lakes, environment, economy, and communities from the harmful effects of non-native species. EPA proposed new discharge standards on Monday, October 26, which they claim will reduce ballast water’s environmental impact. It is accepting public comment on this proposal until November 25.
The 2020 election comes at a crucial moment for the Great Lakes and the communities that call this region home. We call on both major party presidential candidates, Joe Biden and Donald Trump, to pledge to build new prevention methods such as the Brandon Road Lock and Dam, as well as strengthen protections that clamp down on biological pollution from international vessels that discharge ballast water in the Great Lakes and other U.S. waters. These steps must be taken to ensure healthy lakes for the future to come.