Great Lakes virus demands a speedy reaction.
If you've ever watched one of those Sigourney Weaver movies in which icky aliens propagate by implanting themselves inside other species, you'll understand why a group of Minnesota environmental advocates is alarmed over a biological threat spreading across the Great Lakes. The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy has filed suit to force state regulators to stop a deadly fish virus from entering Lake Superior. Their lawsuit brings a welcome sense of urgency that has been missing from the scene until now.
The spread of invasive species in the Great Lakes has alarmed marine biologists and fishing enthusiasts for some years, as documented by the Star Tribune's Tom Meersman in a harrowing series of articles three years ago. Scientists have discovered some 160 invasive species -- most of them arriving in the ballast water of ships from far-off places -- including a toxin that killed 50,000 loons in Lake Erie and a parasitic sea lamprey that preys on fish.
The latest invader is a virus called viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS), which can kill walleyes, bass, muskies and other prized fish. The virus has been detected in four Great Lakes, but not yet in Lake Superior. Environmental advocates want the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to bar ships from dumping untreated ballast water into Duluth harbor and other ports because the discharge could contain infected fish and fish wastes that spread the virus.
There's nothing wrong with the MPCA's philosophical response to the threat. It argues correctly that federal regulators should take the lead because invasive species cross state lines and regulating them could require changes to international shipping treaties. Last spring MPCA Commissioner Brad Moore wrote a good, strong letter to the Environmental Protection Agency's Chicago administrator, urging her to regulate ballast-water discharges in the Great Lakes. Meanwhile, the agency is studying the best technology to stop VHS.
The problem is pace. Scientists are discovering a new invasive species in the Great Lakes every seven months, and by the time VHS migrates into Lake Superior, protecting the lake's magnificent fish population will be immensely harder. Minnesota simply can't wait for the EPA, which moves at such a glacial pace that other states, including California and Michigan, have taken matters into their own hands on a variety of environmental threats. Besides, urging the EPA to regulate ballast water in the Great Lakes hardly seems promising when the agency already is fighting a federal court order to do just that.
Minnesota has a long tradition of thorough science and careful regulation, and a threat as complicated as invasive species deserves both. But it also has a tradition of leadership in environmental protection, and this is a case where leadership is of the essence.