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Published: Wednesday, 7/15/2009

Protect the Great Lakes

U.S. Sens. George Voinovich (R., Ohio) and Carl Levin (D., Mich.) have introduced, with some fanfare, the Asian Carp Prevention and Control Act, a bill designed to protect the Great Lakes from the bighead carp, which can grow as large as 110 pounds and consume vast quantities of phytoplankton that native fish need.

Mr. Voinovich said the bill is designed to "send a clear message to the country; we are committed to protecting the Great Lakes from all invasive species."

Indeed, trying to stop these carp, which originally escaped into the Mississippi River from some fish farms, is a good idea; the lakes are protected from these monsters right now by nothing more than an electric barrier in a canal.

But his bill fails to address the much bigger problem of invasive species that are coming into the Great Lakes from the ballast water of oceangoing freighters, or "salties."

Recently, The Blade called on the governments of the United States and Canada to widen and deepen the locks of the half-century-old St. Lawrence Seaway, to increase commerce by accommodating today's newer and larger oceangoing freighters.

Along with that, however, something else should also be insisted upon as part of any Seaway expansion: stronger, rigorously enforced safeguards against invasive species. Washington made a major error in 1972, when ballast water was exempted from the Clean Water Act. Later, when Congress did pass tough ballast water bills in the 1990s, the Coast Guard failed to enforce them.

As a result, damage in the millions of dollars has resulted from zebra mussels clogging pipes and drains. Worthless junk fish like the Round Goby have made game fish almost extinct in some parts of the lakes, and a virus called VHS has caused other native fish to bleed to death. The government needs to enact stern safeguards to prevent more deadly parasites from damaging the most important system of clean and fresh water in this hemisphere.

Former Michigan Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema strongly advocated requiring all ballast water to be treated with chlorine, an idea that deserves serious consideration. Whatever the proper method, there is no time to waste.

Protecting the environment and building a strong economy are both essential, and Washington and Ottawa should act swiftly to modernize the Seaway, protect the Great Lakes, and help our region become a responsible, vibrant part of the 21st century global economy.

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