National Invasive Species Awareness Week is Monday, Feb. 28 to Friday, March 4. As Pennsylvania grapples with a growing number of invasive plants, insects, and fish and other animals, the Great Lakes experience with invasive species provides helpful lessons.
The Great Lakes contain nearly one-fifth of the world’s drinkable surface water and are home to a diverse commercial and recreational fishery worth over $7 billion per year. They’re now also home to over 185 nonnative aquatic species.
Most nonnative organisms go about their business unnoticed, but some proliferate and become major problems, negatively affecting the economy, biology, and even chemistry of the Great Lakes. This subset of nonnative species is known as invasive species.
Sea lamprey were one of the first nonnative invasive species to have a significant impact on the Great Lakes. These primitive parasitic fish are thought to have entered the upper lakes via the Welland Canal in the early 1900s.
A sea lamprey attaches itself to the side of a host fish via a toothy, sucker-like oral disk, and feeds off the bodily fluids of its unfortunate prey. A single sea lamprey can kill over 40 pounds of fish in its lifetime. Sea lamprey, along with overfishing, resulted in the collapse of valuable commercial lake trout, lake whitefish, and cisco fisheries in the mid-1900s.
Recognizing that the sea lamprey problem was bigger than any single agency or jurisdiction, the United States and Canada formed the Great Lakes Fishery Commission in 1954, largely to try to control this new menace. Pooling partners’ expertise and resources, the commission was able to quickly develop and administer a chemical treatment to suppress sea lamprey populations in the Great Lakes. The program succeeded in reducing the population and limiting further economic and biological devastation. It continues to this day.
The next wave of nonnative species invasions hit the Great Lakes in the 1980s, when zebra and quagga mussels began invading all five lakes. Carried in discharged ballast water from international shipping, these invasive mussels have clogged water intake pipes so extensively that millions of dollars are spent annually to disinfect the pipes. These species have also fouled swimming beaches and, through their filter-feeding behavior, short-circuited the base of the food chain. They’ve likely contributed to avian (bird) botulism outbreaks and harmful algal blooms.
Following the sea lamprey model, the U.S. government formed an interjurisdictional group — the Great Lakes Panel on Aquatic Invasive Species to help address these and other ongoing threats to the Great Lakes from invasive species. Today, many groups collaborate to help manage invasive species in the Great Lakes.
The Great Lakes experience with invasives offers many lessons that apply across Pennsylvania.
First, we live in an increasingly interconnected world, where living organisms are moved easily from place to place.
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Second, once they get a foothold, invasive species can reproduce quickly, often outcompete native species, and expand their range aggressively.
Third, some of these organisms are very harmful to our natural ecosystems and the regional economies that depend on them.
Lastly, to effectively manage invasives species, a regional collaborative approach is crucial.
The Pennsylvania Invasive Species Council, a Governor’s Office advisory panel made up of seven state agencies and many non-governmental organizations, is working on just such an approach to manage invasive species statewide.
The council has developed a plan, Partnerships for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM), that would break the state into six regional partnerships to identify and control invasive species.
While reporting to and guided by the council, each PRISM would be locally based. It would establish a large local pool of resources and knowledge to address invasives in that region, including experts and stakeholders in government, public and private industry, agriculture, environmental organizations, academia, gardening, outdoor recreation groups, and more.
Each PRISM would not only manage current invasive species, but monitor for new invaders so they can be controlled before they become a major problem.
If funded, the PRISM program will reduce the threat to Pennsylvania’s natural resources and the industries they support, including not only our fisheries, but also our farming, nurseries, timber, recreation, and more.
James Grazio, Ph.D., is the Great Lakes biologist at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and a member of the Pennsylvania Invasive Species Council.