Monday, August 31, 2009

Asleep at the Switch

The Great Lakes
As most kids my age did, I took for granted the fresh, clear waters of our beach on Lake Michigan. Most adults must have too because terrible things started happening not long after the St. Lawrence Seaway opened up the Great Lakes to shipping from around the world in 1959.
We were still enjoying the languorous 1950s. The ends of WWII and the Korean Conflict allowed us to breathe again. Americans were focused on buying a house in the suburbs, owning a car and makin' babies.
We worried more about the Red Tide of Communism than we did about the air we breathed and the water we drank. Building highways and bomb shelters took priority. No one seemed to notice or care about the disappearance of native birds and fish. Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" would not be published for another three years.
Usually hindsight is totally useless. However, if it provides insights to what the future might look like, it's worth considering. Regrettably, I was too young to react in any useful way when dead fish bodies started washing ashore on our beach.
A certain amount of fascination accompanied this revolting, new phenomenon. I had owned three gold fish -- Snap, Krackle and Pop -- for a brief time. I'd won them at a carnival and managed to keep them alive for a couple of weeks. But they were tiny. The ever-present, tickly minnows were nearly invisible, but these fish were bigger and white.
The quantity of dead carcasses in the water made it difficult to swim without smacking into one. Accidentally touching one while doing the backstroke was positively sickening. Boys liked to toss rotting fish at the closest girl hoping for an anguished squeal of disgust.
Turns out the dying fish were only the beginning of the Great Lakes' problems. At the time, all we were told was that Alewives were saltwater fish and somehow had swum [I know it looks goofy, but that's the past tense of swim] down the St. Lawrence Seaway and into the freshwater lakes and died.
Fifty years later the Great Lakes are in far worse shape. Not that long ago, scientists were afraid that Lake Erie would die because of all the manufacturing pollution that had been pumped into it. Now the problems are far more serious and, like the industrial pollution, might have been averted.
When the St. Lawrence Seaway opened, ships from Asia and Europe were able to deliver their products to lucrative markets in the American Midwest. It would appear now that no one foresaw problems with those ships dumping ballast water into the lakes.
All of the Great Lakes now are home to non-native plants and animals that are destroying an ecosystem that kept the lakes healthy and productive for eons. Zebra Mussels from Eurasia are clogging water intakes for drinking water in Chicago and elsewhere. Other non-native species are consuming fresh water fish favored by sport and commercial fishermen alike.
Right here, in the legendary Potomac River, non-native plants are clogging the river causing dead areas where fish cannot get enough oxygen. The Chesapeake Bay has long suffered from infestations arriving with cargo ships or from the rivers that flow into the bay. Remember the Asian Snakehead fish scare? They're not going anywhere because they're quite comfortable in their new digs.
Fifty years later the Great Lakes are no longer so great. There conditions are a national/natural tragedy and the catastrophe is spreading well beyond the Lakes.
Previous generations may have fallen asleep at the switch but they are gone. Now, we must stop selling our country's well-being to those with deep pockets and political clout.
There are islands in the Pacific that have mined and exported minerals and indigenous waters to the point where now there is little left to support life. Is North America headed in the same direction? The writing is on the walls and in the rivers and lakes and oceans . . .


Mark said...

How sad is it that the beautiful lakes and other bodies of water are so damaged...and still there doesn't seem to be much of a concern.
I remember working on oil tankers and taking on ballast in Philadelphia and pumping it off in Venezuela. I didn't think anything of it at the time.
There are new, recent, laws concerning ballasting, when and where, ballast record books and the like. The ballast water is now a bit more least on paper, but as you say, the damage is done.

dcpeg said...

We have been so cavalier about our natural environment for so long! I have to wonder how we've survived this long. But then again, diseases and afflictions like autism are showing up in larger numbers than before. I can only hope that evolution will address some of our stupid mistakes.