Every year, about 10 million pounds of trout, sturgeon, and other fish are lost to sea lampreys, the bloodsucking hellspawn that infest the Great Lakes. Native to the North Atlantic and the Baltic, these eel-like fish invaded the region over a century ago and have been decimating native species ever since, to the ire of environmentalists and the fishing industry.
Through a lot of dedicated work, the US and Canada finally got sea lampreys more or less under control. But now many observers are worried the work of battling invasive species could be set back, potentially threatening North American fisheries once again—all because President Donald Trump reportedly plans to gut systems that maintain the health of the Great Lakes.
At the turn of the 20th century, when there weren't many controls in place, 100 million pounds of fish a year (five times the weight of fishermen's annual catch) were lost to sea lampreys, whose mouths are ringed with sharp teeth to attach to fish as their tongues drill through scale and skin to binge on blood.
Then, in 1954, US and Canadian officials teamed up to create the Great Lakes Fishery Commission to control lamprey populations, conduct research, work with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and support federal and local agencies in maintaining the Great Lakes.
Reining in the sea lamprey wasn't easy for the commission—it still costs $20 million a year to keep them at bay, communications director Marc Gaden said in an interview. Part of that comes from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), which tackles everything from managing invasive species (including the sea lamprey and equally reviled Asian carp), trying to control damaging algal blooms, and restoring habitat to native populations.
The plan, which has yet to be presented to Congress, would reportedly cut the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) funding to the GLRI by a whopping 97 per cent to $10 million, if it goes ahead. The commission receives millions—$3.5 million through the EPA in 2016 alone—from the GLRI, a logistical and financial partnership between federal, state and non-government institutions, with more than 200 EPA-funded projects that are ongoing.
"EPA is not commenting at this point in the budget process," EPA public affairs specialist Allison Nowotarski told Motherboard in an emailed statement.
Gaden said that the cuts would hinder the work it's taken to improve the legacy of a time when "the lakes were too polluted to catch fish," and rivers were so dirty they caught fire (which actually happened in 1969).
One lamprey control method that the commission has been developing for years will also be set back by a decade, he continued. "[Research] would probably go down to a trickle."
The commission is developing a technique to use lamprey pheromones (odours given off by the fish) to trap and disable them from mating. "We're very close to having the ability to move the pheromone work on a management-scale level," he said. "If it were to go away, we would have been very close to the doorstep of implementing pheromones and … would probably not have more than a fraction of the resources available."
Controlling invasive species is just one aspect of the EPA's work in the Great Lakes, the University of Guelph's Joe Ackerman told me.
"There are upwards of over 40 areas of concern, largely due to previous industrial practices. I'm obviously concerned about any reduction in funding that occurs," Ackerman, whose lab examines physical-biological links in aquatic systems, said.
Gaden noted that the work funded by the GLRI, in or outside of the commission, is critical in repairing this toxic legacy of environmental damage and resulting fisheries loss.
"All of these things are of critical importance not just to the fishery commission but to anybody who cares about a healthy, restored, economically-vibrant Great Lakes region," he said. "Up until the GLRI, there was a lot of talk about how to restore the Great Lakes … but there wasn't a lot of money behind it. Today we have both plans and money to do that." For now, anyway.
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