by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
How the Supremes’ decisions will hurt animals and our shared environment
Last month the U.S. Supreme Court made two rulings that will negatively impact on me, a Canadian citizen living in Canada, and I’m as angry as I am so very powerless to do a damn thing about it.
Admittedly one of the two decision I don’t feel hugely qualified to comment on, and so I can hope that my fears will prove to be without merit. The other I am quite qualified to comment on.
The one whose ramifications I can only guess at was the decision to remove limits to corporate funding of political candidates. On the one hand, it can hurt small, fringe or independent parties who have enough trouble making their interests known by virtue of their newness and smallness, without the extra burden of having limits on how much funders can support them.
But on the other hand, I think, as an outsider, that it is bad enough that most of the wealth in the U.S. is already so concentrated in such a tiny minority of citizens, and it’s not that much better in Canada. But now I fear that there is just that much more likelihood for corporate influence being heavily weighted in favor of not what is best for society but best for that tiny minority. This has massive ramifications for the environment, since it has always proven that big money comes from big exploitation of the environment, and that means the animals in it. What chance protecting marine or any other life from, for example, profit-driven oil extraction, when politicians are beholden to the oil industry for the funding that is so essential to success at the polls?
The decision I know the most about received much less attention, but has huge ramifications. As is true of so many threats to the environment, we can’t make categorical predictions as to the exact nature of those threats at any future time, but things look dire, indeed.
Recently my province of Ontario joined the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio to get an injunction against the state of Illinois to close the navigational locks that allow ships to enter the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River drainage system. At one time the Great Lakes drainage system (all the rivers, creeks, and streams draining into the Great Lakes) was physically separate from the Mississippi drainage system. But the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal now forms an aquatic link between the vast Great Lakes drainage system to the north, and the immense Mississippi drainage system to the south, with only a single lock separating these two drainage systems.
Why is that a problem? It has to do with a group of non-native fish species collectively known as the “Asian carp” that is now found in the Mississippi drainage. The fish probably arrived by various methods but one source certainly appears to be from catfish farms in the southern United States. The carp were introduced to keep the catfish ponds clean, but during periods of flooding they managed to get into the Mississippi, where, generation by generation, some have moved steadily north, toward the Great Lakes.
At the moment all that keeps them from the Great Lakes when the locks are open are electronic barriers. A single power failure could allow them entry into the Great Lakes. In fact, one of the most damaging of those carp species, the bighead carp, has already been found in Lake Erie, although in small enough numbers we can hope it dies out. There are already other non-native carp species in the Great Lakes, including the common carp and the goldfish (which is the domesticated form of the Prussian carp) and they do have an impact on native fish species by uprooting emergent aquatic vegetation and muddying waters during their breeding activities, but it is nothing compared to the threat posed by the bighead carp and the silver carp.
The problem is that both those species grow large and eat exceptional amounts of small organisms, collectively called plankton, that form the foundation of food chains for many native species of fish, and therefore species, including humans, who eat fish.
The concern of Ontario and other states is for a $7 billion Great Lakes fishery, most of it at risk from these two invasive species, some of which can grow up to 45 kilograms (99 pounds) in weight. They outcompete native species for available food, and have caused significant declines where they have occurred in North America. The silver carp has attained You Tube fame for its habit of jumping, in large numbers, clear of the water at the sound of a motor boat or in response to other stimuli. There are reports of significant injuries to people in boats, or jet skiing, being hit by a large, airborne fish. Bones have been broken.
On the other hand, if the barrier were put in place to protect the Great Lakes, it would be at the cost of shipping by water in and out of Chicago, hence the un-neighborly opposition by the state of Illinois.
On January 19, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively ruled against Ontario and the Great Lakes states in support of the barrier.
Because of our ongoing decision to protect double-crested cormorants from extensive lethal culling in the Great Lakes, that decision is especially and bitterly ironic to me. We are told, although there is no proof, that those southern fish farms, at least partly responsible for the threat of the invasive Asian carp, also are responsible for unprecedented numbers of cormorants surviving their first winter. The fish farms, the theory goes, keep alive inexperienced young birds who migrate south for the winter but would lack experience necessary to survive without this “subsidy.” In fact, historical literature suggests that historically there were even more cormorants prior to the 20th Century than now.
The real concern, although no longer voiced by government agencies responsible for the culling (because they know it lacks merit), is that the cormorants eat too many fish. That is the often-voiced concern of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters and other fishing groups and individuals who lobby long and hard against the cormorants. Study after study has shown that the cormorants most generally do not have any statistically negative impact on the fish species anglers and commercial fishers seek. But logic and science do not drive the concern.
Now there is a real menace approaching, perhaps already in, the Great Lakes. We can’t accurately predict the full outcome because ecosystems are just too complex and changing to allow such predictions to be precise. But it does not look good. Yes, the Asian carp are edible, but they are hard to catch, and at any rate are poised to damage the variety of fish stocks now available to humans, and a wide variety of other species dependent fish, including cormorants.
Although their detractors gloss over the fact, cormorants consume significant numbers of two other invasive fish species in the Great Lakes, the round goby and the alewife. A hundred-pound carp is more than they’ll ever manage, but for the sake of the very people who hate them, let’s hope they develop a taste for baby Asian carp.