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EPA grants help Wayne State researchers stave off Great Lakes environmental invaders

Two U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grants are helping a Wayne State University researcher keep new non-native invasive species out of the Great Lakes and minimize the impact of those that are already there.

Jeffrey Ram, Ph.D., professor of physiology in the WSU School of Medicine, received a two-year EPA grant of $520,000 in 2010 to verify the effectiveness of ballast water treatment systems aboard ships bound for the Great Lakes. The project's goal is to develop land-based, nonindigenous systems to assess how well shipboard ballast water treatment systems work, as well as how long they last.

A second two-year grant of $500,000 received in August 2011 will be used to test an early warning system in Toledo Harbor (Maumee River and Bay) and western Lake Erie for the entry of invasive species into the Great Lakes.

"Invasive species rob people of value, just as surely as outlaws in the Old West robbed banks," Ram said. "I like to think of stopping invasive species from damaging our environment as a way of achieving some environmental justice."

Both grants are part of the EPA's Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), a large, multitarget program that awarded $450 million in grants in 2010 and is in the process of awarding another $330 million this year.

Invasive species comprise one GLRI target, and treating ships' ballast water helps to prevent such invasions. The introduction of non-native organisms via commercial shipping has had enormous negative economic and ecological effects on the Great Lakes, Ram said. Ballast water discharge by ships from foreign fresh-water ports are believed to be the source of zebra and quagga mussels, gobies and other species.

Ballast water also can transfer pathogens, such as viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS), that harm Great Lakes fisheries. While dumping foreign fresh water ballast and refilling with ocean water might prevent some species from making the trip to the Great Lakes, others can survive ocean ballast. Some microorganisms also can resist other extreme conditions.

Ram and his team are collaborating with Canadian government officials and recently conducted a test aboard the freighter Indiana Harbor. The ship's ballast water was tested in Gary, Ind., where it unloaded taconite, and again in Superior, Wis., its next stop. Researchers collaborated with U.S. National Park Service officials on the tests, which range from bench top to boat ballast, and are planning similar tests on other ships.

Experiments with collected samples are in progress and working well, Ram said. Data is being analyzed, with a focus on bacteria, and during the next year the team will work on phytoplankton and zooplankton (microscopic plants and animals). Verifying effectiveness of ballast water treatment systems, he said, will assist in virtually eliminating future introductions of invasive species to the Great Lakes by such water.

Using a combination of methods, samples will be given simple on-board marking and preservation treatments. Preserved samples, which will contain markers currently being tested to determine whether organisms are alive or dead, then will be sent off ship to be analyzed at a central processing laboratory.

If successful, the methods could be used in a regular monitoring system and also may give early warning of possible new invasive species risks.

Western Lake Erie and the Maumee River, the location of Toledo's port where many "laker" ships discharge ballast water, are areas characterized by the EPA as high risk because of their hospitable environments for many invasive species. In addition, the low flood plain between the upper reaches of the Maumee River and the Wabash River makes the Maumee a potential entry point for Asian carp and other invasive species from the Mississippi River watershed. That's why Ram and his team are working near the mouth of the Maumee River to develop protocols for coordinated Great Lakes basinwide monitoring.

Researchers literally will work from top to bottom of the waters of the Maumee River and Maumee Bay to sample animals and algae. New molecular techniques including biological "bar coding" and the services of Ecoanalysts, a professional taxonomy company, will be key to future success at detecting foreign species early in their invasion, and potentially slowing or reversing their spread.

"I expect our results to yield a pattern and set of protocols and procedures that any agency in the Great Lakes could adopt for monitoring and detecting non-native species that might show up in their neighborhood," Ram said. "The outcome of these two projects will be to reduce the number of invasive species that enter and survive and spread in the Great Lakes, thereby preserving the natural value of the lakes for future generations."


Contact: Julie O'Connor
Wayne State University - Office of the Vice President for Research

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