Pictured is a mat of Eurasian milfoil.
When scientists push for regulations to keep non-native species out of Lake Champlain, they aren’t doing it to intentionally ruin someone’s livlihood—they are doing it to protect one of the region’s largest resources, something we all benefit from.
Howard Hammond’s column, Invasives: Fact or Fiction, reflects a trend in our society to dismiss science as suspect when it doesn’t coincide with one’s views regarding a particular issue.
But science and beliefs are two different things. Much like beliefs, the role of science is to answer questions, but unlike beliefs, scientific conclusions are based upon data gleaned from observation and experimentation. As Hammond shows us, those answers aren’t always nice to hear, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be heeded.
While this is an admittedly brief definition of the scientific process, it still cuts to the core of the matter: Hammond has dismissed scientific research in favor of his belief regarding what Lake Champlain should be—a haven for bass fishing. It’s an extraordinarily narrow view considering the vast array of interests invested in this resource.
The North Country has, at its disposal, a lake whose surface area is about 490 square miles. For residents of the region, Lake Champlain is an aqueous economic engine whose value cannot be measured in gallons or miles. Its sheer size might imply that it is impervious to an assault of any kind, but the lake is comprised of many working parts, and is potentially vulnerable if any of those parts are disturbed.
To be clear, Hammond raises a good point when he writes that not every foreign species is detrimental to the lake’s health. He does, however, fail to recognize an important distinction: the terms non-native and invasive are not interchangeable.
Non-native species are those not indigenous to an ecosystem. In Lake Champlain, rainbow trout are non-native. Invasive takes the definition of non-native one step further by adding that the non-native species in question will or is likely to cause harm to human health, the environment or the economy of the region it inhabits. Zebra mussels and Eurasian milfoil are examples of invasive species presently found in Lake Champlain.
The distinction is important to note, because, while Hammond is correct that ecosystems do change, he neglects to acknowledge that change is not always good.
Science, and history, have taught us that invasive species can seriously affect the biodiversity, and therefore the health, of an ecosystem.
For example, zebra mussels in Lake Champlain are outcompeting native mussels for resources, coating water intake pipes and slicing the feet of non-suspecting swimmers. If that isn’t bad enough, in Lakes Erie and Ontario zebra mussels have been attributed to botulism outbreaks in local waterfowl and bass.
But don’t take my word for it. There is plenty of information out there, and, contrary to Hammond’s assertion, there are also peer-reviewed, scientific journal articles written as well. One of them, “Strategic Plan for Lake Champlain Fisheries,” can be found online at glfc.org/pubs/SpecialPubs/2010-03.pdf. Among its contributors is Mark Malchoff, whom, ironically enough, Hammond mentions in his column.
The article answers Hammond’s main query regarding how invasive species are harmful, and was written as a collaboration of nine scientists and peer reviewed by 14 scientists, all of whose credentials are listed. The document also references 40 scientific papers used throughout the research process, all of which can be accessed for further research.
It’s true that experts don’t know exactly how species like round gobies will affect the ecology of Lake Champlain, and that’s the point. The only way they will know for sure is by studying the effects after it happens, and by then the damage might already be done. The real question here isn’t “What if there is no harm?” it’s “Why take the risk?”
Shaun Kittle is a reporter with Denton Publications. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.