Briefing by the Honorable Dennis Schornack
Chairman, U.S. Section, International Joint Commission
1250 23rd St. NW, Suite 100
Washington, DC 20440

Tuesday, February 11, 2003
Ottawa, Ontario

Chairman Wappel, and Vice Chairs Cuzner and Stoffer, I am honored to have this opportunity to brief this distinguished committee as you study how to tackle the number one challenge facing the Great Lakes Ecosystem today - alien invasive species.

To begin, I must thank my colleagues - Commissioner Robert Gourd and Co-Chair Herb Gray. I am fortunate to enjoy a privilege that many of you have enjoyed for so long, and that is the privilege of serving shoulder to shoulder with the Rt. Honorable Herb Gray. Canada is truly blessed by his leadership.

It is always a pleasure to see Commissioner Gélinas. I am also glad to see Mr. Paul Steckle who played a key role when this committee hosted the IJC, the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission and the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters at a reception to introduce this issue to Parliament last fall.

For more than 20 years I have worked on policies to defend and protect the Great Lakes. I passionately believe that when our two nations work together, our strength and determination can meet any challenge to the lakes. And as partners, we have the ability and the means to prevent the invasion of alien species. What we need is the political will and the leadership that begins with the men and women in this room today.

My briefing draws from a recent report published by the International Association for Great Lakes Research (IAGLR). It's called "Research and Management Priorities for Aquatic Invasive Species in the Great Lakes." Copies of this report have been translated and made available to the committee, and I strongly urge you to read it.

As noted by Chair Gray, the involvement of the IJC stems from the visionary Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement which committed the governments of the U.S. and Canada to a great purpose: "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem."

Mr. Chairman and members of this committee, there is a serious threat to the biological integrity of the lakes, and our nations must work together to respond to the threat of invasive species.

Let me be clear, invasive species are the number one threat to the biological integrity of the Great Lakes.

They are the number one threat to biodiversity, pushing some native species to the brink of extinction.

They are the number one threat to our biosecurity, putting cultures, lifestyles and economies that are tied to the Great Lakes at risk.

In short, invasive species are the number one threat to the ecological and economic health of the Great Lakes.

Let me share one stark example. The near-death of Lake Erie more than 30 years ago was the crisis that led to the creation of the GLWQA and regulations to ban phosphate detergents in the Great Lakes basin and to severely limit discharges of phosphorus into the lakes. Later, bans on toxic chemical discharges were adopted. As a result of this clear science-based vision, political leadership and action, Lake Erie came back.

But now, many scientists believe that Lake Erie is threatened again - not because of phosphorus or toxic chemical contaminants, but because of alien invaders such as the zebra and quagga mussels, and the round goby. These invaders are wreaking havoc on the lake ecosystem, threatening native species, disrupting the food web, and changing critical processes that maintain a stable, healthy lake. Just like phosphorus, these invaders threaten to destroy the ecosystem of Lake Erie all over again.

That's why this is the most pressing concern facing the Great Lakes today. I am talking about . . .

  • Billions of dollars in costs to governments at all levels and to industry, especially energy providers who have spent more than $3 billion over 10 years responding to the zebra mussel alone. That means higher water costs and higher power costs to your constituents.
  • Possible devastation of a $4.5 billion commercial and sport fishery that is integral to the economies surrounding the lakes.
  • And serious threats to our way of life and to the lifestyles of the diverse cultures that call the Great Lakes home, including the First Nations and Native Americans.

I'd like to offer a simple model to conceptualize the many ways these alien invaders enter our Great Lakes. Think of three doorways, and each doorway has implications for policy, technology and further research.

First, the Front Door - the primary vector for invasion is the discharge of untreated ballast water brought in by foreign vessels in international commerce and spread by intralake traffic.

I want to commend the Shipping Federation of Canada for being the first to adopt voluntary ballast exchange guidelines in 1989.

In 1993, the United States enacted mandatory regulations enforced by the Coast Guard requiring ballast water exchange outside the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). New, more comprehensive regulations are under development and will be in place by next year.

However, as noted by Commissioner Gourd, these rules are not very effective. Since these regulations were enacted, scientists have identified at least four new invaders to the Great Lakes.

Let me be blunt - the gateway to the Great Lakes is controlled by our two nations. As two nations dedicated to maritime free trade, we have always laid a welcome mat at this door. But as nations also dedicated to conserving a world-class freshwater resource, we must take strong measures to keep our lakes free of unwanted invaders and open to commerce.

We have provided to the committee a matrix detailing the many technologies that could potentially be used. And I would note that recent research into the concept of ballast water deoxygenation appears promising because it has the potential to not only kill most of the live biota in ballast water, but to reduce corrosion and thus lengthen the useful lives of the ships as well.

However, despite years of research, no single technology has proven to be 100% effective or applicable on a wide range of vessel types. None of these treatment technologies have exhibited effectiveness against resting eggs and cysts, and scientists are finding it difficult to conduct well-controlled experiments aboard operating commercial vessels that function in a tightly competitive climate and must give priority to paying customers.

The second way invaders get in is through the Side Door to our shared waters - the Chicago Canal - a manmade connection between the two largest basins in North America, the Mississippi and the Great Lakes.

Looming in this doorway is the Asian Carp - large aquatic vacuum cleaners that are moving up the Mississippi toward the Great Lakes and are now within 50 miles of Lake Michigan. They suck up plankton and disrupt the food web upon which all other fish life depends.

Reaching up to 100 pounds, this piscatorial poster child for invasive species has no predators. We cannot let them decimate fishing in the Great Lakes. We cannot let them turn the Great Lakes into a carp pond.

Last July, the IJC alerted the governments to the seriousness of the threat and called for immediate action to prevent the invasion. And I am pleased to report that a coalition of government agencies, researchers, and non-profit organizations responded quickly to our call.

As a result, we now have an electrical barrier that has been in operation since last April and back up systems in the event of a power failure. A second barrier will be built when pending legislation - the National Aquatic Invasive Species Act - passes the U.S. Congress.

In the fight against the carp invasion, I must cite the leadership of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley in putting the power of his office in action to get things done. In addition, I should note that this spring he will convene a conference in Chicago to look at ways to engineer the biological separation of the two basins.

However, our best efforts to prevent the passage of this fish into the Great Lakes are being thwarted by yet another entryway - the Back Door to the lakes. By this I mean live fish markets in cities like Chicago and Toronto and other cities in the basin. For example, in Toronto alone, one million kilos of live Asian carp are sold each year, much of it trucked across the U.S.-Canadian border. This back door also includes the sale of bait, fish for aquariums and escapes from aquaculture.

At the federal level in the U.S., the Department of the Interior is working under the Lacey Act to finalize rules prohibiting commerce in snakehead and black carp. States like Indiana and Michigan have adopted laws to prohibit live possession of these species.

On a more local level, the Mayor's Office in Chicago has drafted an ordinance prohibiting the sale, transport or possession of the Asian carp. And voluntary organizations like the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters are educating their members about the threat. I believe such broad societal partnerships are key to changing behavior and solving the problem.

What can you do to close these doors, to cut off these corridors to invasion?

First and foremost, Canada and the United States must work together to harmonize and strengthen rules and regulations.

Second, to be effective we must take a basin-wide, ecosystem approach.

Third, best available science must drive decision-making so that we avoid the risk of blunt instruments advocated by those who say we must simply ban ballast water dumping.

Fourth, both nations must support additional research - into ship design, risk assessment, rapid response and ballast water treatment technologies.

Fifth, the nations must provide for full-scale test platforms dedicated to operational testing and evaluation of bench scale technologies on real boats.

Sixth, we must develop a binational decision support system that can be used to track ships in transit and evaluate their risk of spreading invasive species.

And seventh, we need a workable ballast treatment standard and the means to enforce it.

As highlighted in our 11th Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality, the IJC continues to call for a reference to address each of these recommendations and "to coordinate and harmonize binational efforts for action to stop this ongoing threat to the economy and the biological integrity of the Great Lakes."

In conclusion, let me remind the committee that in 1978, Canada and the United States agreed to a standard calling for the zero discharge and virtual elimination of persistent toxic chemicals in the Great Lakes. Now, 25 years later, Canada and the United States must be guided by that same vision as we act to stop biological contamination that is just as persistent and just as dangerous as chemical contamination.

The IAGLR research report we have provided to the committee suggests a 10-year goal to eliminate invasions, but I believe that ten years is too long. We can and should do better. We should do it now.

I thank the Chair for his patience and look forward to answering questions from the committee.