By John Flesher
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Federal grants will support stepped-up research into ways to prevent invasions of the Great Lakes by foreign animal and plant species, with special emphasis on refining techniques that detect their DNA in the water, officials said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it was distributing $8 million among 21 universities and nonprofit organizations for invasive species research studies. In addition to warding off future attacks, the projects will develop alarms to signal when invasions are starting and new methods of controlling those already under way.
“These projects will improve the environmental health and economic vitality of the world’s largest freshwater system,” said Susan Hedman, chief of EPA’s regional office in Chicago.
The money is coming from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a federal program meant to make progress on the lakes’ biggest ecological challenges, such as toxic pollution, wildlife habitat loss and harmful algae blooms.
More than 180 exotic fish, mollusks, bacteria and other species have made their way to the lakes, many in ballast water of oceangoing cargo ships that began visiting the region’s ports after the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959. They’ve caused hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of economic losses while upending native ecosystems.
Scientists believe dozens of other species are waiting in the wings — including Asian carp, plankton-gobbling fish that have infested the Mississippi River and its tributaries and are bearing down on Lake Michigan.
DNA from Asian carp has been found in waterways near Chicago beyond an electric barrier meant to stop them. Their genetic material also has turned up in Lake Erie.
So-called “environmental DNA” is found in excrement, scales and mucous that fish leave in the water. Experts say its presence likely means live fish were in the area. But it doesn’t reveal how many there are, and skeptics contend the DNA could have come from other sources such as fish-eating birds or bilge water deposited from boats.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is conducting a study to clear up those issues.
Several of the newly announced EPA grants will pay for research into making environmental DNA a more useful yardstick. The University of Notre Dame received almost $600,000 to determine whether it can help with organisms other than fish, such as invertebrates and even plants.
Environmental DNA “is becoming more and more accepted as a tool in detecting target species,” said Scott Egan, a research assistant professor. “The earlier the detection, the faster we can avoid serious damages to the Great Lakes.”
Michigan State University was awarded $600,000 for developing a hand-held device to analyze environmental DNA in the field, said Syed Hashsham, an environmental engineering professor. He and colleagues are working on ways to find the genetic material in large volumes of water instead of the small samples now taken.
A similar grant was approved for work at the University of Toledo on DNA diagnostic tests.
Other studies will focus on reducing Internet trade in invasive species, monitoring their presence in ship ballast and controlling invasive plants such as phragmites and purple loosestrife.
Michigan State also received money to experiment with chemical repellants that could prevent reproduction of parasitic sea lamprey, which feed on sport and commercial fish such as lake trout.