Guest column: Invasive species burden Michigan, region with tens of millions in costs

By Helen Taylor/Nature Conservancy

Tiny mussels that wash up on beaches and attach to boats, piers and underwater pipes. Mats of vegetation that blanket lakes and take the fun out of boating, fishing and water-skiing. Tall grasses that invade shorelines, blocking lake views.

In the Great Lakes states, we’ve read about aquatic invasive species such as zebra mussels, Eurasian water milfoil and Phragmites (common reed) and oftentimes experienced them first hand. We know what a nuisance they are.

Less clear, however, is the impact these invasive plants and animals are having on our economy. Quantifying those costs is difficult and, as a result, many different numbers have surfaced in recent years. 

In an effort to better understand the true costs of aquatic invasive species in the Great Lakes basin, The Nature Conservancy recently commissioned the Anderson Economic Group to perform the research and analysis needed to sort the hype from the reality.

Their conclusion? While they can’t provide a single number for total cost because there isn’t enough solid research on all aspects of the issue, they can report with confidence that the direct cost of aquatic invasive species to the Great Lakes basin is more than $100 million annually, and likely significantly more.

Six main industries bear the brunt of these direct, out-of-pocket costs: sport and commercial fishing, power generation, industrial facilities, shipping-related businesses, tourism and recreation and public water supply facilities.

Some of the cost estimates the Anderson Group uncovered are startling:

*Great Lakes businesses suffer $50 million every year in losses and reduced demand due to mollusks and sea lamprey.

* The Great Lakes Fishery Commission is spending approximately $34 million annually on research and control of aquatic invasive species.

* A paper plant along Lake Michigan spent $1.97 million to remove 400 cubic yards of zebra mussels from its facility.

* In 2009-10, the eight Great Lakes states spent nearly $31 million to manage and prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species.

These costs trickle down to all of us. The 40 million people who get their drinking water from the Great Lakes pay higher water bills. Costs incurred by power plants to remove zebra mussels from intake pipes will be passed on to consumers. And Great Lakes fish are either more expensive or less available, or both, due to the impacts of invasive species.

Today, most of the money spent on aquatic invasives goes to management. But if we want to win the war against invasive species, prevention is the first line of defense and the most cost-effective strategy.

For example, investing in the development of screening and risk assessment tools that allow agencies to prohibit or restrict from trade those species that are likely to be problematic could stop the most ecologically and economically damaging new species from entering Great Lakes waters.

If they do get in, tools like environmental DNA, which can detect DNA shed into water by Asian carp and other fish, can help detect them quickly, giving us a better chance of controlling emerging populations before they become established and are much more costly to control.

We can’t afford to ignore aquatic invasive species. Their economic, social and environmental cost to the Great Lakes basin and the people who live and work here is too high.

A coordinated, region-wide plan to prevent new introductions of those invasive species most likely to cause harm, detect and respond rapidly to new invaders and implement early control is a wise investment in our economy, our lives and one of the world’s greatest freshwater systems.

Editor's note: Taylor is a member of the Bridge Board of Advisers.

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Tue, 06/12/2012 - 12:11pm
And we are still allowing untreated ballast water from international ships to be discharged in to our Great Lakes. Maybe the Fed thinks it can't get any worse so why close the barn door after the horse is already out? The mismanagement of the Great Lakes is one of the truely sad and ignored legacies left by the Fed. They find it easier to turn their head than to establish procedures to mandate compliance. Washington is too far from any of the Great Lakes to be a priority but if the Bay gets more polluted, the Fed will be there with every device known to man to clean it up so the tourists don't smell the stink in DC.
Mrs. A
Wed, 06/13/2012 - 3:18pm
Great article - I would like to see Ms Taylor become a regular contributor and hear from her at least monthly. I don't think readers realize how critical early detection, eradication, and removal of invasives is. I believe the average person looks at the Great Lakes and thinks, all that water, how could anything be wrong? But the problems are insidious and pervasive. Regular information is the best way to build public awareness to spur action. Let's face it, water is going to become more and more precious this century -- and water is Michigan's ticket to economic recovery and to ongoing sustainability, long after the Sunbelt has burnt out. We're not getting the support we need from our current Congressman. We Michiganders need to take it upon ourselves to protect our water resources. Educated voices like Ms Taylor's are critical to making the right choices.