"Once invasive species are established in an aquatic system, it's almost impossible to get rid of them...Prevention is much less expensive than eradication."
John Andersen, the Conservancy's Great Lakes Program director
By Lauren Miura
Since the 1800s, species from faraway waters such as zebra mussels and purple loosestrife have been hitching rides to the Great Lakes on transoceanic ships.
With thousands of ports in the world, predicting where the next harmful invasive species is likely to come from is a necessary first step in preventing new invasions. Scientists from the University of Notre Dame — in partnership with The Nature Conservancy — are hoping to do just that.
“A new invasive species is discovered in the Great Lakes once every seven or eight months,” says David Lodge, an ecologist and professor at Notre Dame whose lab is leading the research. “In order to better manage our lakes and waterways, we have to understand these invasions and forecast, with confidence, future invasions.”
Risky Ports, Risky Species
Armed with data on water temperature, salinity and other characteristics of ports around the world, the researchers will first determine which ports are the most environmentally similar to the Great Lakes.
Then, working with local scientists and Conservancy biologists, they will identify species found near those ports that are likely to pose the greatest risk if transported to the Great Lakes — species such as Asian carp that reproduce quickly or have no predators in the Great Lakes.
The final stage of the research will analyze global shipping patterns to determine which routes link the Great Lakes to the most risky ports. This information will help corporations, the shipping industry, insurance companies and others take measures to prevent more invasive species from entering the lakes.
“Once invasive species are established in an aquatic system, it’s almost impossible to get rid of them,” said John Andersen, the Conservancy’s Great Lakes Program director. “We’re trying to prevent new problems from occurring, because prevention is much less expensive than eradication.”
A New Partnership: The Center for Aquatic Conservation
The study is one of several that Notre Dame is undertaking through the Center for Aquatic Conservation, established last year as part of established last year as part of a new partnership with the Conservancy.
The Center serves as a place where scientists gather, analyze and distribute research on pathways in which aquatic invasive species are introduced or spread: shipping, trade, recreational boating and canals. Current research topics include:
- Totaling the costs of impacts from invasive species transported by ships into the Great Lakes, as compared to the total value of the shipping industry;
- Analyzing the economic costs and benefits of screening new plant species proposed for import; and
- Quantifying the spread of invasive species from the Great Lakes into inland lakes and rivers, in order to guide placement of boat-inspection stations.
From Congress to Conservation — Why Addressing Invasive Species is Crucial
The Conservancy is using the Center’s research to advance public policy and to encourage collaborative, voluntary efforts with industries and other private and public institutions.
“I’ve been grateful to draw upon the expertise and scientific leadership of Dr. Lodge and the Center to help show federal policy makers the implications of their decisions,” says Catherine Hazlewood, senior policy advisor of the Conservancy’s Global Invasive Species Initiative.
For example, Congress is expected to take up aquatic invasive species legislation this session and will be faced with two significant choices — whether to pass a ballast treatment bill, or whether to additionally consider and regulate other pathways of species introduction.
“The Center and the Conservancy have worked together to show Congress why they must enact a comprehensive bill that considers all pathways, showing them specific examples of aquatic invasive species around the nation,” Hazlewood says.
The Center’s research also has implications on the ground, says John Randall, director of the Conservancy’s Global Invasive Species Initiative.
“We’re using the Center’s field research not only to influence public policies and business practices, but also in our own land and water management practices,” Randall says. “In this way, it’s a multi-faceted, productive partnership.”
Lauren Miura is a senior writer at The Nature Conservancy.