ESCANABA - The threat posed by the spread of aquatic invasive species in the Great Lakes is an ongoing concern and was the main topic of discussion during a presentation Tuesday at Bay College.
Ron Kinnunen, an educator from the Michigan Sea Grant program, which strives to foster economic growth and protect Michigan's coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research, and outreach, calls aquatic invasive species biological pollution.
"Basically unlike chemical pollution, which can be cleaned up over time...when you get an invasive species here and they do establish, they're basically here forever," he said, during his presentation.
Aquatic invasive species have several pathways to get into the Great Lakes whether it be through canals, commercial shipping and barge traffic, recreational boats, live bait use by anglers, the nursery trade, or aquarium release.
"Niagara Falls basically kept everything out from the Atlantic Ocean," he said. "Things coming up the St. Lawrence could only make it as far as Niagara Falls and that was the end of the road for them. There's been a lot of these ecological barriers that have been breached all over the world."
For instance, the opening of the Welland Canal which provided shipping access from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie allowed the sea lamprey, a native of the Atlantic Ocean, to move into the Lower Great Lakes, then spread through the Upper Great Lakes.
Then there was the introduction of zebra mussels.
"A lot of vessels that came in early on were carrying ballast water," he said. "That's when we had another rude awakening around 1988 where zebra mussels were discovered in Lake St. Clair.
They think it was a Russian vessel that brought those into the Great Lakes."
One aquatic invasive species of growing concern is the Asian carp.
Though there are four species of the carp that threaten Michigan waters, the two most concerning are the bighead and silver Asian carp.
"These two species of carp are filter feeders," said Kinnunen. "They actually filter the water and they feed off plankton. They're not like predatory fish that eat other fish but they're eating the bottom of the food chain."
Though a species of growing concern, Asian carp have been around for some time, first brought to North America in the 1970s primarily to eat algae in aquaculture ponds.
They escaped from the ponds into the Mississippi and Illinois rivers are are now migrating toward Lake Michigan.
"The biggest concern here is this Chicago Area Waterway System," said Kinnunen. who noted that if the Asian carp get through this system and make their way into the Great Lakes, the invasive species could make their way as far north to local rivers such as the Ford River and Big Cedar River.
"Those are long rivers," he said. "They can get up there and they probably can reproduce in those river systems."
Kinnunen also talked about viral hemorrhagic septicemia, a deadly infectious fish disease that causes large-scale hemorrhaging in a fish's internal organs and has become a major concern in the Great Lakes.
"They think this thing came in from the North Atlantic," he said. "It's a mystery how it got here but it entered into the Great Lakes system."
The virus is transmitted through infected feces of the fish, infected sexual fluids, and contaminated food or prey.
Zebra and quagga mussels are another major invasive species in the Great Lakes.
"This could be the worst thing ever, maybe even worse than sea lamprey," said Kinnunen, who noted though the mussels make the water clearer by feeding off plankton, by doing so they also further disrupt the food chain.
Zebra and quagga mussels also build up contaminants in their bodies, in turn exposing other animals to higher levels of contaminants. Additionally, they have been known to attach onto and kill native species of mussels.
Harmful algal blooms are also problematic in the Great Lakes as they can potentially produce toxins and are harmful to aquatic life, humans and other animals.
Kinnunen highlighted a couple programs that have been implemented to help reduce the impact of invasive species.
One in particular addresses the potential spread of aquatic invasive species through fishing tournaments - as they could be spread by contaminated boats and equipment when anglers travel to and from different tournament locations.
"We've provided information and resources, basically low impact on tournament operations but high impact on results," he said. "We don't want to disrupt the tournaments, but we want to make sure that we put things in place that help prevent the spread of invasive species."
Kinnunen also noted he and a colleague from the University of Minnesota have developed a program for the bait industry called the Aquative Invasive Species-Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (AIS-HACCP) verification/certification. AIS-HACCP is a self-inspection system for reducing the risk of spreading aquatic invasive species through aquaculture, hatchery, scientific, natural resource, and baitfish harvesting activities.
"We've been working with the bait industry throughout the Midwest with this program," said Kinnunen. "We know there's a problem because we know that invasive species can invade the baitfish and aquaculture operations."
Though such a program is not required by the state of Michigan, he said Department of Natural Resources surveys show that the bait industry, estimated to be a $1 billion industry in the United States and Canada, is responding positively by taking part in the AIS-HACCP program.
"Most people are using the program even through it's not required by law," he said. "They have not found any invasive species in all their inspections, so to me, it's working."
Tuesday's presentation was sponsored by the Delta County Chamber of Commerce and the Delta County League of Women Voters.