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Michigan battles to keep invasive species out of its waters

Sea lamprey.

April 26, 2012

Although state officials are working hard to market Michigan as a top travel and residential destination, there is one group of "visitors" that is definitely off the invitation list: aquatic invasive species (AIS) — plants, animals and organisms that did not originate in the Great Lakes ecosystem, but have been introduced either intentionally or accidentally.

Since the presence of such species can have damaging effects on established ecosystems and ecological processes, the departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Quality are working hand-in-hand to update Michigan's Aquatic Invasive Species Management Plan for the first time in a decade. Sea lamprey, arrived in the Great Lakes after the Welland Canal was completed, devastated Great Lakes lake trout populations. (Image on the right.)

Originally formulated in 1996, under the auspices of the National Invasive Species Act, the plan was last updated in 2002. It details existing and proposed strategies to prevent the introduction and spread of invasive species and limit their harmful effects.

The draft updated plan (available for review at .www.michigan.gov/deqaquaticinvasives) outlines new actions for implementation and enhancement of existing efforts to prevent new infestations of AIS, as well as limit the spread of existing AIS. The plan shifts Michigan's focus from responding to specific invasive species to emphasizing the blockage of pathways that aid their introduction and spread. The plan includes strategies for early detection and rapid response to AIS, too.

Invasive species, as defined by the National Invasive Species Act, are species that are not native and whose introduction causes, or is likely to cause, economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.

Zebra mussels.

The plan was assembled by the State of Michigan AIS team, made up of DEQ personnel from the Water Resources Division and Office of the Great Lakes; DNR personnel from the Fisheries, Wildlife, Recreation and Law Enforcement divisions; the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's Pesticide and Plant Pest Management and Animal Industry divisions, and the Department of Transportation's Project Planning Division.

Sarah LeSage, a DEQ aquatic biologist who is leading the effort, said the AIS team has been at work updating the plan since December 2010.

"A lot of the last year and half we've been educating each other about what everybody's been working on," LeSage said. "We're building a knowledge base that's been spotty before. So we took our time building our team.

"Here in Michigan, we've been active in dealing with AIS. We've made progress, but there's still a lot of work to be done."

Invasive species have been on the radar for many years, but LeSage said they have really come into focus in the last couple of years — especially with the ominous specter of Asian carp possibly making their way into the Great Lakes.

Gobies.

In 2011 the Michigan Legislature passed a bill creating an AIS Advisory Council, a 19-member group with representatives from state agencies, industry and environmental organizations. The council will comment on the management plan, make recommendations on Michigan's certification of the Environmental Protection Agency's ballast-water permit, and produce a comprehensive report on organisms in trade.

The council is also charged with making recommendations for funding the implementation of the plan.

LeSage said the work of the AIS team and advisory council is critical. Year to year, the species — zebra mussels, sea lampreys, Asian carp, etc. — may change, but the threat is constant and very real.

"Invasive species have had — and continue to have — negative economic and environmental impacts on the state's resources," LeSage explained. "Because AIS compete with native species for food and habitat and can cause direct harm to native species, the outcomes can be alarming."

Consider that aquatic invasive species can:

  • Affect diversity or abundance of native species; Alter food webs;
  • Decrease commercial and recreational fisheries; Decrease property values;
  • Decrease tourism; and
  • Disrupt utilities and other industries.

The economic impact of AIS in the Great Lakes region is estimated to be $5.7 billion per year, with the recreational and commercial fishing industries (with losses estimated at $4.5 billion per year) the most negatively affected.

Nationwide, invasive species (both aquatic and terrestrial) cost the United States an estimated $137 billion per year.

The draft AIS State Management Plan has identified four goals:

  • Prevent new introductions of AIS into Michigan waters;
  • Limit the spread of established AIS populations into uninfested waters;
  • Develop an early detection and rapid response program, to address new invasions; and
  • Manage and control AIS to lessen the harmful ecological, economic, social and public health effects.

LeSage said the draft management plan has identified three types of pathways (or vectors) for AIS: shipping and boating, habitat alteration and the use and trade of organisms.

Spiny water fleas.

The major shipping and boating vector is through ballast water in commercial maritime ships, although recreational boating and fishing play a part, too. Habitat alteration includes building canals and locks and transportation facilities. Introductions can occur through trade in organisms (such as the aquarium industry), fishing (the use of live bait) and fish stocking or hatchery activities.

The first two goals can be managed by identifying and blocking AIS pathways, such as implementing the state's ballast-water control permitting program, which requires treatment of ballast water in ships entering Michigan waters.

Strategic actions outlined by the plan include legislation and policy, regulations (including compliance, enforcement and inspection), information and education, research and monitoring, early detection and rapid response, success measurement and development of funding estimates.

"It's a far-reaching plan, but aquatic invasive species really affect so many things and involve so many people that the plan has to be comprehensive," LeSage said. "It involves state agencies, partners, businesses, land owners — really it touches almost everybody."

DNR fisheries biologist Tom Goniea agrees.

"I think the development of the draft AIS management plan has been a positive collaboration between divisions and departments," said Goniea, one of two DNR fisheries biologists on the team. "When finished, the plan should provide a guideline for not only state agencies, but also our partners outside of state government on how to move forward in tackling one of the most important issues facing Michigan's aquatic resources."

Michigan's waters now harbor 182 non-indigenous species, though some of them (notably Chinook and Coho salmon and brown and rainbow trout) are not considered invasive. Of these, 77 were introduced through ballast water, the most common AIS pathway.

Bighead carp.

Implementation of the management plan hinges on sustainable long-term funding for the AIS program, LeSage said. In 2010, Michigan received a federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant to aid priority actions, but this is a stop-gap measure to update the plan. With a plan estimate of $1.5 million annually to implement high-priority actions and maintain current effort, long-term funding is clearly needed, and for good reason.

"Michigan's Great Lakes, inland lakes, rivers and streams — and the fish, animals and plants they support — are a huge part of what makes this state an outdoor recreation mecca," LeSage said. "Keeping aquatic invasive species out of our waters isn't just a nice thing to do. For the protection and health of our native natural resources, it's something we can't afford not to do."

Public comment on the plan will be accepted through May 1, 2012. Send comments to Sarah LeSage at lesages@michigan.gov or P.O. Box 30458, Lansing, MI 48909-7958.

Learn more about this collaborative effort at www.www.michigan.gov/deqaquaticinvasives.

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