Over the course of my fellowship with the Great Lakes Commission, one of the more contentious topics I have worked on has been aquatic invasive species. Boaters, anglers, the maritime industry, the shipping industry, the bait and aquaculture industries, harbors, natural resource managers, drinking water facilities, and anyone else reliant on Great Lakes water (which is to say, everyone in the basin) all have a different opinion on what we should be doing to stem the tide (pun intended) of these invaders.
Two groups – the shipping industry and environmental groups – are particularly on-edge when it comes to finding a solution to this problem. The shipping industry is constantly under fire from environmental groups calling for stricter legislation to govern ballast water discharges, and the environmental advocates are frustrated at the lack of progress in this same area.
Last month I attended the biannual meeting of the Great Lakes Aquatic Nuisance Species Panel in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The Great Lakes Commission organizes the work of this panel and so we host the meetings, write up summaries, send out action items, review documents, etc.
Most of the meeting was about what you’d expect – presentations about ballast water treatments and regulations, updates on the the Chicago Sanitary Ship Canal, discussions about VHS control efforts, and general comments on how the panel should be conducting its business over the course of a new year and under new leadership (Jim Grazio was recently elected chair of the panel).
The very last item on the agenda set aside 5 minutes for public comment. Expecting there to be none (as is usually the case) I had put away my laptop and was preparing myself for another AIS-related meeting the GLC had scheduled for later that same day (we like to overbook ourselves if we can).
Instead, Jim Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers' Association and recent panel member retiree, stepped up to the podium. This is what I wrote in my summary:
Once industry is gone from the panel, this forum will not be as effective. The ocean-going vessels (salties) should be treated differently from the vessels that stay within the basin (lakers). There are 63 lakers in the Great Lakes, down from 300 we had in the 30’s. Are the costs and the risk of massive chemotherapy really worth it?
These words hardly reflect the passion and conviction with which Jim spoke to us that Wednesday morning. What is missing is that he opened with the experience of watching his mother waste away from cancer and the subsequent chemotherapy that was required to treat her. Chemo is effective for certain kinds of cancer, he said, but it is not without cost and is not appropriate for all kinds of cancer.
He made this analogy to say that strict regulations are indeed effective for certain ships, but are not necessary for all. He then went on to describe the effects the current economic crisis was having on the shipping industry, and cautioned that further regulations will only cause a more protracted economic downturn for the people he represents and their families.
The point of this blog is not to promote Jim Weakley’s particular point of view as the right one. Indeed, while he certainly has one (that is, a point), so do all of the other groups I mentioned at the very beginning of this discussion. Passion, of course, does not mean his argument is without fault. There are certainly counterarguments, many of which I get to spend chunks of my day identifying and promoting (or not, depending on what's appropriate).
The point here is that these subtleties – the thickness of the room while he spoke, the stunned silence as he finished, and the sound of Jim Grazio clearing his throat before moving the discussion on to where the next meeting should be held – all of these will be lost when a watered-down version of my notes is posted on our website in the meeting minutes.
This is just one story I have from the many events I have attended since starting the fellowship (frequent travel, you’ll find, is also one of the perks of this particular gig). I am sure that I will have many more after I finish this job in five months.
As someone who works in environmental management, I recognize the value of knowing these personal stories. “Outsiders” – which is to say non-GLC employees and non-panel members – don’t have access to the institutional memory that is built into a group like this, which remembers the interpersonal dynamics that led up to such a powerful and heated statement by one of its representatives. We must all recognize that environmental decisions are made by people, and their idiosyncrasies will necessarily have an impact on the outcome of our work. Knowing these people and understanding their stories is a necessary part of making progress in this (and probably any) field. Having the opportunity to network with these groups is just one of the things I have loved about working with the Great Lakes Commission.
Kristina Donnelly is the current Sea Grant Fellow at the Great Lakes Commission.