The Great Lakes’ Sisyphean problem


If protecting the Great Lakes has a connection to mythology, it’s to Sisyphus.

Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson

Sisyphus was the Greek king whose daily task in the after-life was to push a boulder to the top of the hill only to have it roll down. Then he’d do it again.  In modern culture, a Sisyphean task refers to one that is “endless and ineffective.”

When I read the latest algae and Asian carp news I’m usually reminded of poor Sisyphus. Here’s what I mean.

The USEPA recently awarded Ohio’s Lake Erie Commission $500,000 to study the causes of Lake Erie’s harmful algae blooms. Harmful algae sucks the oxygen out of the water creating dead zones, causes beaches to be closed and forces municipalities to spend more money on water treatment. It has been a major problem in recent years and shows no sign of abating.

But wait a minute.

Wasn’t there a major U.S. and Canada study released in September that laid out Lake Erie’s algae problems and a list of actions that need to take place? It was done by the International Joint Commission — the folks who have official status for providing advice on the Great Lakes’ problems.

Yes there was and it was a good one.

It eschewed soft and diplomatic language in favor of unvarnished, action-oriented recommendations using words like “ban, prohibit and regulate.” And I don’t recall that body of work calling for more study.

Lake Erie’s Sisyphean cousin is the Asian carp.

The U.S. Geological Survey recently announced that grass carp — a relative of Asian carp — had naturally reproduced “within the Lake Erie basin.”   The agency said that’s an indication that Asian carp could reproduce in Lake Erie too.

Reaction was swift and predictable.

Environmental groups dusted off talking points calling for action and physical separation of the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River, the primary vector for Asian carp. Politicians cranked out press releases calling for protection for the Great Lakes. Editorial boards published a flurry of opinions echoing the sentiments of the environmentalists and politicians.

But this isn’t new.

In the four years since Asian carp DNA was discovered past the electrical barriers in the Chicago waterways system this scenario has been repeated multiple times. A new carp advance is discovered and alarms are sounded. Advocates, politicians and editors rant and raise red flags. Then the issue goes dormant until the next revelation and the cycle repeats.

chicagoviewDeviation from the script

Every time there’s an algae bloom or Asian carp dustup I try to find a deviation from the script and I did this time.

Sandy Bihn is a Lake Erie Waterkeeper who has lived with the algae problems and she isn’t afraid to speak the truth. She’s tired of the standard prescription of coddling farmers and relying on them to voluntarily reduce phosphorus, the primary cause of algae blooms.

Writing in the Columbus Dispatch, Bihn calls for authorities to set a limit — a Total Maximum Daily Load in official terms — on how much phosphorous Lake Erie can handle. She cites the Chesapeake Bay’s experience in controlling algae where not much happened over decades until limits were established. Voluntary measures didn’t cut it there and won’t for Lake Erie.

Here’s the thing. Everyone knows that Bihn is right but politicians and regulators don’t have the political will to act because that would lead to regulation of farmers in Ohio, and they are loathe to do that.

When the USEPA announced the $500,000 grant to study Lake Erie algae, Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur quickly praised the action, saying “dealing with harmful algae blooms must be a top priority.”

I doubt that we’d have heard a peep from Kaptur — one of our Great Lakes “champions” –if the EPA was announcing its intent to regulate farmers to protect Lake Erie. Sometimes our “champions” are so when it’s convenient, like bringing a check to the home state no matter that it may do little to solve the problem.

Similarly, in a meeting of the Great Lakes Advisory Board last week participants danced delicately around mention of the “R” word — regulation — in their recommendations.

The same dynamic has played out with Asian carp. There has been no shortage over the past four years of study on the cost and feasibility of separating the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River. But there has been next to no discussion of finding the billions of dollars to fund it.

The latest carp advance prompted a letter signed by all 16 Great Lakes senators — more “champions” — to the Army Corps of Engineers telling them to pick up the pace on their plan to stop the carp.  This type of communication is easy, cheap and isn’t new — agencies are used to getting angry letters from Congress.

But four years after environmental DNA revealed that Asian carp could be in the Great Lakes, we’re still waiting for a study to tell us what to do about one of the biggest threats they face.

Somewhere in the labyrinth of the EPA’s bureaucracy and decision-making process there’s probably a justification of a sort for spending $500,000 to study Lake Erie’s algae.

But since we already know what to do, it’s a continuation of the study and repeat cycle.

That aligns us with Sisyphus’ work:  “Endless and ineffective.”

18 thoughts on “The Great Lakes’ Sisyphean problem

  1. No problem Scoop. The lack of plankton in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basin is probably causing waters to be overloaded with nutrients. When small portions of extra nutrients from farms enter these systems, it probably results in an overloading of nutrients that cause algal blooms. I also imagine the lack of plankton to be causing a lower population of alewives. Not being a biologist, I have no business making an argument for Tom, but this might make some common horse sense. What in the world would the DNR be doing trying to revive the alewife population if there isn’t enough plankton in the Great Lakes system to even support an alewife population? The DNR could put that money into trying to get plankton back into the game.

  2. There are predators galore in the Mississippi River and same with the bays in the Great Lakes. Some just fail to understand that you can’t stock enough or naturally reproduce enough predators to ever control gobies, mussels and other exotics, including Asian carp. Are we really that slow that we think there’s one fish species that will only eat one other? What good did having hundreds of thousands of catfish, bass, pike, panfish and more do for the Mississippi? What good does having hundreds of thousands of walleyes, bass, pike, muskies, brown trout, catfish, bowfin and more do for Green Bay? You’ll never have enough predation to deal with all the exotics. The sport fisheries are thriving even with all the mussels and gobies and gizzard shad and white perch and ruffe and the list goes on.

  3. Bob, your trying to say the lake can’t survive without invasive species? Perch are both predator of invasive species and natural prey for most top NATIVE predators. Scoopy, again common carp were dominant before asian carp down south, not predator cousins. Chapman and other experts says we can control asian carp with predators,native predators fit the bill, they have to be abundant, native fish are not abundant enough to control the goby, and goby don’t grow too big. We ain’t got enough yet! Lot of people have figured out the truth about what’s been going on in Lake Michigan, makes you nuts huh scoopy? Native fish dominant is the long term solution, filling the lake back up with alewives just compounds our current invasive species problem, and leaves the lake wide open to asian carp or any other invasive species!

  4. Bob, as a side note, I got involved in this particular internet commentary as an electrical engineer. With the advent of the asian carp problem, came electrofishing and the electrical barrier. I don’t know much about fishing, but electrofishing seems to be an extreme means to monitor fish. The dangers presented by using a powerful electrical generator to catch fish that can be herded by net seem to add an unneeded risk. To this date I have a difficult time justifying the use of an electrical barrier. The electrical barrier in itself, though dangerous, is an excellent temporary deterent to asian carp. The problem is that people now want them everywhere and people are still demanding a hydrological seperation of the Mississippi River basin and the Great Lakes. Such a seperation is not an ecological seperation and would probably result in inhuman persecution of fishermen and others. I can imagine the DNR’s dilema with regards to asian carp and zebra/quagga mussels to be similar. In other words, do you introduce a predator for asian carp and let the round gobies run wild?

  5. I agree that our goal should be to remove invasive species. But it would be irresponsible to destroy / extirpate native prey and predator fish populations in order to remove the invasives.

    This are some of the very issues fisheries biologists working the Cisco restoration on Lake Erie are dealing with, and can be read about in the GLFC Lake Erie Committee annual documents/reports, as well as some of their presentations.

  6. Scoop, as long as the DNR makes an exception for alewives as an invasive species, the DNR will take an approach towards asian carp as a species with no predators. The only attempts that I’m aware of to tip the balance in favor of predators has been the stocking of alligator gar. Unfortunately, they don’t fair too well in cold climates. To me, the obvious solution is to stock the Mississippi with a predator akin to the Wels catfish. There are too many varieties of planktivores thriving all too well within the system, creating nutrient rich waters. The problem is that you cannot reach a valid scientific conclusion to stock such a predator until you’ve exhausted your native predator resource list. How can you exhaust your native pedator resource list if you’re holding onto alewives, an invasive species, inorder to stock salmon, an invasive predator? The entire system is interdependent. The DNR’s functioning as part of the government is not that of enterprise. Instead of dismissing everything Tom says as contrived, why don’t you propose a solution?

  7. Well Bob, the lakes ecosystem survived 10,000 years without smelt, goby,alewife, gizzard shad, invasive white perch etc… and was thriving at levels we can only guess at. All these you mention attack/feed in the bottom of the food range, zooplankton etc.. white Perch feed a little higher as well as eggs. Lake Michigan is reserved for alewives, alewives dominant in fact, since 1985, results tell the tale. With just alewives gone in Huron, all native fish coming back including emerald shiners, reversing the invasive impact, how much they wont say, but they’re catching fish no stocking required now. We have a very long way to go before there’s a threat of “too many native fish”. Too many zooplankton eaters affect every fish in the system, only predators can balance them. Native fish don’t become a problem. “Asian Carp products are the future”
    Goss says, Asian Carp are now protected in Illinois and points south, they made them worth money. One only needs to read the New MDNR Fishery Div. “Tacitical plan” to know Asian Carp and any other invasive species are perfectly safe here. The Asian Carp have already shown you what they will do here, when and how fast is the only unknown here. We can control how many predators they run into, but they’ll eat alewives, and alewives are a protected invasive species,that eat the same zooplankton (and larval fish) we don’t want asian carp to eat. Sorry pal, invasives gotta go!

  8. Tom has typed the “simple stock more predators” speech across the internet in multiple states, as if it were that easy, but the biologist was right, it’s not that simple. Bob you nailed it.

    There were and are so many native predators in the Mississippi system when Asian carp arrived. What good did it do?

  9. Tom M,
    Lake Erie is not ‘reserved’ for Alewife. They continue to be a small portion of the baitfish population, primarily in the eastern basin.
    And ‘overloading’ Lake Erie with predators is a silly idea. The predators aren’t magically going to eat 1 type of prey once they are in the lake, they will feed on all types indiscriminately as their locations coincide with their movements through the lake. So native prey fish populations will be wiped out along with any invasives. And then with the population collapse of prey fish populations you then get a follow up collapse of the predator population. Supposing you could get all the smelt, white perch, goby, alewife, & gizzard shad out of lake erie; could emerald shiners as a whole withstand the massive population losses they would experience and the loss of genetic diversity? Would the handful of ciscoes in the lake be able to resurge and would they spread to new areas? What would the effects be on the trout perch and spottail shiner populations?

  10. Mr/ms? Lakewatcher, I have spent a lot of time with researchers,talked to them at the meetings,e-mails read more scientific studies than anyone should have to. I haved learned a lot, I only have respect only for a few. Why? The results. The results is usually more studies, no action, political biology nevers works (see lake). I have nothing against studies, but we have millions of dollars of real studies we can’t use, worthless, because alewife biology top priority, cancels all. I have had these people lie to my face. I recently chated with a lady biologist, sitting next to me at a meeting. Gave her some “studies” about using predators for asian carp and other invasive species. Her response ” I’m a biologist, it’s not that simple” twice. Yes it is that simple we simply have too many invasive species. We are asked to pay for Barriers, lights and bubbles, cannons etc…. just obstacles “endless and ineffective” and costly, not really a control. Nowhere in the U.S. is asian carp under control, most invasives are not under control,but we’re studying it! Now we have predators for Asian carp, several species the experts say, AMEN! Lets get cracking, we can get ahead of the carp, but that wont last to long. Sorry Sir, the lake is reserved for alewives, perhaps you could try some of our Delicious Asian Carp surprise? Or Goby alla Antwon!

  11. Lakewatcher,

    A couple of thoughts.

    1. To the essence of my commentary:

    Do you believe that voluntary measures by agriculture are adequate to control runoff containing phosphorous? To date they haven’t worked. Should Total Maximum Daily Loads be set for Lake Erie?

    2. Posts where the writer signs his/her name have more credibility?

    Gary Wilson

  12. If this makes sense to anyone, I think it’s better to talk about a reduction in federal funding of carp processing plants before talking about taxing fish waste.

  13. What malarkey. “Everyone knows Ms. Bihn is right” Ha! Everyone except all the scientists and researchers working hard at trying to find credible, science based, practical and implementable solutions. In all my years of attending tours, research conferences, public forums, and watershed events, I don’t know that I have ever seen Gary Wilson present. Maybe he should actually come out and do some real reporting by spending some time with the trained scientists and accredited researchers in the trenches actually working hard to solve this problem, instead of parroting the easy pot shots! As for Congresswoman Kaptur, she is one of the best friends the lake and the lakes stakeholders have ever had. Shame on Gary.

  14. Gary, if I may my father was a deer hunter. He called the hunters that just walked 50 feet off the road and sat down to hunt “Pussyfooters”. It was omly a couple years ago I looked pussyfooters up, and my father was using it correctly, As you are with sisyphean. Tho I feel somewhat vindicated by Chapmans recent statements that we can control the carp using predators, it means nothing if we don’t do it. You see I was raised you walk past the pussyfooters, and go where the deer are and do it right. Endless and ineffective plans or the sisy way, seems to be the order of the day. The pussy/sisyfooters are blocking the trail, and the future of the great lakes is riding on it. You and my Dad were right. The system might belong to the sisypuss’es but the lakes belong to all of us!

  15. Sissyfus is perfect, “endless and ineffective” describes Asian carp control efforts to date and planned,cuts to the chase. Mr. Mike with respect, you need to realize how important this is. All our so called Asian Carp plans are based on the “No known predators” thing, this from our experts. Yep it’s true we don’t have predators for 50 pound Asian Carp, but we have lots of predators for the eggs,fry, larvae and juvenile asian carp. Lots as in several species. Surviving the spawn “recruitment” is the most vulnerable time for all fish including the carp. From the experts “The size of ALL populations of fish including common carp is ultimately determined by recruitment and survival rates” they also say “you have to stock predators after removing carp, or the ones you miss will just refill the hole you just made, even increase because you just took out the competition and predators” This has been proven over and over in Illinois. So now with this “revelation” from the top asian carp expert, what do we do? Barriers are endless and ineffective, and expensive, does not reduce the car population, puts the “control” in one spot, that they can get past. By filling the system back up with predators, makes the entire system a control. We can control how many predators they run into. Now we have a chance to get ahead of the Asian carp, but that wont last for long, with low predators it goes fast once they start spawning, be proactive. However we have to wait 5 years or more to see if they can fill lake Michigan back up with alewives. This is putting us farther behind, the carp farther ahead, as well as the other invasive species we have now. We know they’re coming, we know what they’ll do here, saving the alewives is not in our best interests. Alewives eat the same zooplankton as Asian Carp including the larval native fish.

  16. One of the best commentaries you’ve ever penned Gary. Bravo. Of course it only offers incite, not solutions but still, I liked it. We know the solutions!

    Tom M: Of course there are predators to Asian Carp. Big fish always eat little fish. But we’d need to stock alligators in Peoria to predate the source of the Asian Carp….big Asian Carp.

  17. Thanks as always Tom for the comments.

    The Sisyphus reference just seemed to work, at least for me.

    And a nice play on words (sissyfooting) yourself.

    Gary Wilson

  18. Right on Gary, but do we really need another big word in the equation? Regarding the carp. For 9 years it’s been “No known predators of Asian Carp” Now it seems acording to the “experts” we have several predators for Asian Carp, and Asian Carp can be controlled with predators. All the predators we can use against asian carp happen to be native fish, none are salmon or coldwater fish. That is not my fault, it’s just the way it is. Restoring native fish/predators can be done while they’re are sisypheaning around in Chicago. So we have a long term solution (predators) that we know we have,and will eat asian carp. Abundant enough to control the carp is all that is needed. So what do we do with this information? Do we act, or just wait and keep sissyfooting around?

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