Locks open Pandora’s box

What is Pandora’s box and what locks you ask? Pandora’s Box was an artifact in Greek mythology. Actually it was a large jar given to Pandora by Zeus as a wedding gift, with the instruction to never open it, as it contained all the evils of the world. In today’s world, Pandora’s Box means to perform an act that may seem small or innocent, but that turns out to have severe detrimental and far-reaching consequences.

The locks on the St Lawrence River, which opened the Great Lakes to international shipping from all the world’s seven seas in 1959 and cost $1 billion back then when gas was 25 cents a gallon!

While it is an engineering marvel, it caused great ecological damage, with huge negative monetary impacts, and did not bring the positive economic benefits promised by politicians. Surprise, surprise!

The ecological and monetary damages came from exotic species transported here in ballast water. All ships carry ballast water in tanks along the ships sides. Ballast water stabilizes the ship and is a matter of floating or sinking. The hidden danger was the exotic species and disease carried across the oceans to Great Lakes environments.

There are two types of ships that enter the Great Lakes, ones that are empty and have ballast water from a distant port. Once they arrive at a Great Lakes port, they discharge the ballast water and all critters therein while loading. The other type are ships known as NoBOB’s, which means no ballast water on board, but factually have a fairly large amount of ballast. They are fully loaded. Once they unload their cargo in ports such as Cleveland or Chicago, they take on additional ballast water. Once they arrive in the next Great Lakes port, such as Alpena or Duluth, and take on cargo, they dump their ballast water, which also contains aquatic species from foreign waters. These processes have become an ecological disaster.

In 2012 there were 180 documented non-native species in the Great Lakes. In 1940 there were zero. Some were intentional (salmon, steelhead), others colonized our inland seas, while most were unintentional. When the Welland Canal was completed in 1935, sea lamprey and alewife invaded the four upper lakes from Lake Ontario, which had a connection to the Atlantic Ocean.

Since 1959, one-third of the exotic species in the Great Lakes have been introduced as a result of the international shipping industry. There may be more to come. Some are a big nuisance, while others aren’t. Fifty-five percent come from Eurasia.

Fish number 25 of the species. Some consider alewife a pest species, but the famed Lake Michigan salmon fishery depends on them. Two of the worst fish species, are the round and tubenose goby. They become present in huge numbers, with dozens per square meter. They are very aggressive and out-compete native fish. They also consume large numbers of native fish eggs. Three undesirables of the 25 fish species are in the Copper Country area. Alewife and ruffe have been documented in the Portage/Torch system. Alewife are providing an excellent forage base for walleye. Round goby are present in good numbers in Agate Harbor and are probably in Eagle and Copper Harbors. Fishermen collecting their own minnows should inspect the catch carefully, so these are not spread to inland waters.

Two of the 14 exotic mussels that have caused much ecological and monetary damage are zebra and quagga mussels. The monetary damage was caused by their attaching to municipal water intakes and literally clogging them, necessitating removal.

Two planktonic crustaceans which came from ballast water, are the spiny and fishhook water fleas. They are 1-3 inches long and eat native zooplankton. In Lake Michigan they become so dense that they collect on fishing lines in huge numbers, so when reeling in a fish, the rod tip becomes plugged and retrieving is halted. However, some ingenious fisherman developed a triangular line (regular line is round or nearly so) that sheds the fleas and is marketed as flea-flicker line.

These few we have discussed are the most noxious and only a peek at the 180-plus exotics! Now you know how the St Lawrence Seaway’s locks gave us unwanted gifts.

Go Fish! P.S. She did open the box…