Dealing With Invasive Species in Lake Erie

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Ohio Senator George Voinovich says the threat is real and serious, even if his description of it is somewhat tongue in cheek.

George Voinovich: Terrorists from abroad that have entered our lake.

Villains with names like Alewife, Round Goby, Zebra Mussel - Voinovich joined other lawmakers and environmental officials at Edgewater park in Cleveland, as they announced new legislation to curtail the introduction of more invasive species into Lake Erie. Already, more than 180 exotic species have made a home in the lake, killing native creature and costing billions of dollars. Jack Shaner of the Ohio Environmental Council says the invaders are sneaky.

Jack Shaner: They hitchhike a ride on oceangoing vessels, freighters that work their way up the great St. Lawrence Seaway and as they come into port, loading and unloading cargo, they will discharge ballast water.

Ballast water is kept on these boats to help them stay balanced. But it's often put on the boats in foreign ports and then discharged - along with the invaders - into the lake. As part of new legislation on both the state and federal levels, lawmakers want to enact tougher treatment standards for ballast water. Voinovich also wants to require the treatment of boats that claim they have no ballast water on board.

George Voinovich: Because they have a little bit in their ballasts. And so we're requiring them to do is to immediately put salt water in there. The concept is you put salt water in there, you'll kill 'em off.

While some of the solutions may sound simple, invasive species have been a problem in Lake Erie for decades, frustrating environmentalists and civic leaders alike.

Zebra mussels clogged a pipe in one town, cutting off drinking water supply. Some bottom-dwellers cause more toxins to accumulate in the fish humans eat. And, they could be contributing to oxygen-deprived dead zones in the lake. Sean Logan is the new director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and he is getting impatient.

Sean Logan: The ships are still dumping their bilge here and the clock is still ticking.

Voinovich conceded that they're making progress slowly. Experts say it's nearly impossible to get rid of the species that have already made a home here. The focus now is on prevention. He hopes this legislation will pass during this congress, but he says it's been caught up in bureaucracy.

George Voinovich: Originally this legislation was going to be in the environment and public works committee. We find that the ballast water is in the commerce department. And Senator Levin and I are working Senator Inhoue of Hawaii to try and make sure this we get high priority for this legislation that is going to pass for the entire country.

And Voinovich says there may not be enough money to do this right.

George Voinovich: Because of the money that we're spending on the Iraq War and Afghanistan and homeland security, that some of the resources to get this job done aren't available and that's something all of us should be very concerned about.

One person at the event happy the government is finally doing something is Robert Collins. He's the head of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association. He says the crisis is at the 11th hour. Still, he says occasionally an invasive species can do some good.

Robert Collins: Most of these invasive species we're talking about have a bad side to them that outweighs the good side, but for example, the zebra mussel is probably a contributing factor for cleaning up Lake Erie.

That's because the zebra mussel filters lake water. But, no one is saying the zebra mussel's net effect has been positive. And most agree that it will take federal action - rather than a patchwork of state-by-state efforts - to bring the problem of invasive species in the Great Lakes under control.

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