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ASIAN CARP THREAT -- An expensive electronic weir in the Illinois River is all that keeps the invasive Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

How St. Lawrence Seaway, Invasive Species Threaten to Destroy Great Lakes

Fifty Years From Euphoria to Abject Despair Is the Pandora Legacy We Face

August 1, 2009       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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Soon there may be only one type of fish in the Great Lakes.

Asian Carp.

No perch, steel;head, walleye, whitefish, lake trout, salmon, etc., etc.

How can this possibly be?

Well, the St. Lawrence Seaway that opened 50 years ago to great enthusiasm, has proven to be a Trojan Horse for the Great Lakes. It has opened the door to hundreds of invasive species, most destructive of which is the Asian Carp.

Jeff Alexander, award-winning author of the book "Pandora's Locks," is not the only observer who has proclaimed the Seaway disaster, but he is the latest and most vocal.

"The Seaway opened the floodgates to a biological plague that is now wreaking havoc on the world's largest freshwater ecosystem," he writes.

Mr. Alexander was at Horizon Books in Traverse City last week signing copies of his book "Pandora's Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes-St. Laurence Seaway." (See

We recall as a rookie copy editor/reporter at The Bay City Times in 1959 being enthralled, along with everyone else in Michigan, about the opening of the Seaway. The Times published a special Seaway edition and books came off the presses by the hundreds of thousands extolling the praises of the geniuses who came up with the project of the millennium -- The St. Lawrence Seaway.

No less than President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the Seaway on June 26, 1959 in ceremonies in Montreal, Canada.

Foreign ships began to flow into the Port of Bay City/Saginaw and mayors and other public officials spared no ceremony feting ship captains from Germany, Sweden, Russia, Japan and points round the globe. Wine flowed like, well, wine, and bands played all night shipboard.

Author Alexander minces no words in noting that although foreign ocean freighters now bring in about $55 million annually to the region, 57 invasive species brought in through the Seaway costs us $200 to $400 million each year.

  • The invasive species eat our game fish.

  • They create conditions that cause algae to form, fouling beaches.

  • They unleash e-botulism that, according to Alexander, bastardizes the food chain and kills fish and birds in the lakes.

    According to our sage lakes advisor, AuGres Bill, not only do the Asian Carp devour game fish, they may jump into our boats and threaten us with bodily harm.

    Holy Olive Oyl, Popeye, this is a revoltin' development!

    But unfortunately it is no laughing matter.

    Asian Carp have debarked from the ballasts of foreign ships in the Mississippi River and have swarmed their way toward the Great Lakes, being delayed only temporarily in the Illinois Ship Canal where a rear guard action with a weir has been fought for several years.

    Reports are the carp have decimated other fish species in the Mississippi. Some observers feel it only a matter of time before the Illinois River weir is breached or carp eggs enter the Great Lakes and the predators take over.

    According to Mr. Alexander, the U.S. and Canada knew in 1981 -- years before zebra mussels or round gobies arrived -- that ocean freighters were hauling billions of foreign organisms into the lakes in ballast water tanks. "Yet, regulatory officials in both nations sat on their collective hands as an army of invaders from distant ports laid siege to these incomparable lakes," writes Mr. Alexander.

    Mr. Alexander was no where near as alarmist about the Asian Carp as I would have been had I written a book about the potential demise of the lakes as a result of the Seaway.

    He does, however, raise the black flag hoisted by some politicians, environmental groups and scientists who have called for closing the Seaway.

    If you think I'm exaggerating about the Asian carp, consider this report from Northern Illinois University:

    "Illinois residents along the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois rivers have been subjected to a strange sight in the past year -- flying carp. It's not unusual for bighead and silver carp to land in boats, occasionally bouncing off shocked passengers, injuring drivers and, in some cases, causing damage to the boats. These carp have a habit of jumping when disturbed by the wake of a passing vessel."

    These flying slime balls are not mutants from some Dr. Strangefish experiment, they are actually products of the Arkansas aquaculture industry.

    Fast growth and ability to filter out algae and zoo plankton while feeding made them an ideal aquaculture fish species in their native China. They were brought into the U.S. to control algal blooms in catfish ponds and a possible secondary market food product. But when the record floods of 1993 and 1995 along the Mississippi River inundated many fish farms, the Asian monsters were released into the riverine system of the U.S. South.

    The fertile, muddy Mississippi provided a food feast for the prolific and fast-growing fish, and their numbers skyrocketed. It wasn't long before the largest of the bighead and silver carp were damaging fishing gear, notes the NIU report.

    "With the potential of reaching 100 pounds, the bighead and silver carp are rapidly moving up the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois rivers and, like a school of aquatic bullies, taking over critical backwater areas used by many native fish for spawning. A recent backwater fish kill in Missouri revealed that more than 90 percent of the fish occupying the backwater were grass, bighead and silver carp. Biologists monitoring the rapid growth and movement of the Asian carp populations in the river systems in Illinois are concerned."

    Besides being hard to market as food, according to Illinois sources, the fish are considered a potential threat to commercial and recreational boaters. There are frequent tales of large bighead and silver carp crashing through the windshields of vessels.

    Eric Gittinger, a fishery biologist with the INHS, has the unenviable distinction of being struck by Asian carp 12 times during his studies. One hit to his neck was severe enough that he had to see a doctor and undergo physical therapy. He is still suffering from chronic pain related to his injury.

    "I was hit three times in 2001 and nine times in 2000," Gittinger said. "These things can launch themselves 10 feet vertically in the air and jump up to 20 feet horizontally. Most of the fish that jump are 5 to 15 pounds."

    Although this corner has continued to be entranced by the enormous economic potential of the Seaway, we are now chastened by the facts -- only 10 percent of all Great Lakes cargo comes from ocean freighters.

    The Port of Bay City/Saginaw, first buoyed by foreign ship traffic after the Seaway opening, soon dropped its hopes as New York, Montreal and other East Coast ports with containerization capabilities took all the business. It was easier for shippers to send goods by rail or truck to the major ports for trans-shipment to Europe or elsewhere.

    At the same time, local developers failed to establish a port authority and the Saginaw River is not on any radar screen in cooperative Great Lakes marketing plans.

    Notably, every other port on the lakes is prominent in the "short sea shipping" and other cooperative movements designed to keep alive the dream of the Seaway as an economic driver.

    Local shippers are dominated by importers of bulk products like coal, stone, salt, asphalt and other building materials and are disinclined to pay fees to promote exporting by other firms.

    The history of the St. Lawrence Seaway proclaims it as "an engineering marvel that also represents close political cooperation between the United States and Canada. A complex series of locks, canals, and waterways, it provides a link between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean.

    "While the ultimate version of the seaway was constructed in the mid-20th century, its origins can be traced back to the 17th century, when the French attempted to build a canal to bypass the rapids at Lachine near Montreal, Quebec. A canal at Lachine was finally completed in 1825 and remained in operation until 1970, when it closed due to the success of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

    "While many individual locks and canals permitted waterborne traffic to transit between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic, the St. Lawrence Seaway was envisioned as a means to ensure uniformity so that very large ships could make the journey without undue delays.

    "The need for such a seaway was acknowledged by both countries in the St. Lawrence Deep Waterway Treaty, or what also is called the Hoover-Bennett Treaty, in 1932. No action, however, was taken until well past the end of World War II because of opposition from groups in the United States and the attack on Pearl Harbor. Because of fears of invasion from the Germans and Japanese, the St. Lawrence River was closed to traffic during the war.

    "After the war, more challenges forced the delay of construction until 1954. It was a formidable task that included moving more than two hundred million cubic yards of earth. It replaced a waterway with a depth of 14 feet with one that ran 27 feet deep and reduced the number of locks from 30 to 15.

    "In addition to improved navigation, the seaway enabled both Ontario Hydro and the New York State Power Authority to develop hydroelectric facilities.

    "The seaway was officially opened in 1959. The cost of US$470 million was shared between the two national governments, with Canada paying $336 million and the United States $134 million. To recognize that disparity, revenues from operations are shared in that proportion." ###

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    Dave Rogers

    Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
    respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
    (Contact Dave Via Email at

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