Daily Herald opinion: We owe a debt of gratitude to those protecting the Great Lakes

We are quick to acknowledge — as we should be — those who defend us both on American soil and in foreign battlefields.

We are grateful as well for those who protect our streets, our homes and our health.

But there are others we owe a debt of gratitude to. While their work is far less dangerous, and their mission seemingly less dramatic, we should also acknowledge the efforts of those who fight to safeguard our air, our water and our natural resources. And that includes those on the front lines of battling invasive species from harming Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes.

When we think invaders, we picture criminals — armed and potentially lethal. Aquatic invaders, however, carry a different kind of threat, but share with humans the power to destroy.

Consider this: Invasive species tend to reproduce quickly and have few predators, according to The Nature Conservancy. Invasive fish have contributed to a drop in lake trout and whitefish, hurting both commercial fisherman and those who enjoy fishing off piers and boats. Invasive plants, meanwhile, can crowd out native plants, cutting the food supply for birds and other species.

Invasive species can also affect the quality of the water we drink and the very nature of a lake that provides us with a place to swim, boat and take in the views.

As environmental reporter Jenny Whidden chronicled in her recent article on protecting the Great Lakes, prevention is key when it comes to keeping Asian carp and other invasive species from infiltrating local waters.

Since the 1990s, environmentalists have focused on stopping the usual ways invasive species are introduced to the lakes. That includes recreational boats, the live pet trade and connected waterways.

Scott Sowa, the Great Lakes Program Director for The Nature Conservancy, likened the fight against invasive species to efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19.

“We flatten the curve, (but) we also have to focus on early detection and rapid response, and then ultimately control where we can,” Sowa said. “Because if you can detect a species early, and just like you can detect the virus early, there’s a higher probability you can contain it and possibly eradicate it.”

Since 2006, the number of new invasive species entering the Great Lakes has declined by 85%, Whidden reported. That is impressive, but the struggle is ongoing.

So as we head into this holiday weekend, which for many includes a visit to the lake, we need to acknowledge those trying to preserve the ecosystem we love and rely on.

Lake Michigan is one of the region’s great assets; we thank those laboring to protect it.

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