Professor David Lodge conducts eDNA research in his lab in Galvin Hall at the University of Notre Dame Mar. 29, 2011. Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

Notre Dame Professor Leads Effort to Keep Asian Carp Out of Great Lakes

Thu, 03-31-2011

When the United States Fish and Wildlife Service decided in March to ban the import and transport of bighead carp — one of the infamous Asian carp — under a century-old law called the Lacey Act, David Lodge had one reaction. “It’s about time,” he said.

 

It figures that Mr. Lodge, 54, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Notre Dame, would have a decided opinion. He has spent much of his career predicting which foreign species could harm the Great Lakes. And in the decades since Asian carp escaped Southern fish farms and began marauding up the Mississippi River, Mr. Lodge, a nationally known expert on invasive species, has become nearly as famous in some circles as the voracious fish.

He has also been an advocate of using the Lacey Act to block Asian carp and other invasive species. Though the act is the sole federal defense against the importing of potentially devastating plants and animals, it covers only 20 groups of organisms. As with the carp, most were added to the list long after they became environmental hazards.

Mr. Lodge’s findings of “environmental DNA,” or eDNA, from Asian carp in and near Lake Michigan in 2009 and 2010 led to a legal battle involving the Supreme Court, federal legislation, calls to close Chicago-area waterways or reverse their flow, a dispute with the Army Corps of Engineers, and even the appointment of a White House “Asian carp czar.”

Industry groups that depend on rivers and canals in the Chicago area to transport chemicals, coal, cement and other commodities have sharply criticized Mr. Lodge and his science. They argue that he has begun approaching the carp issue as an advocate, not as a dispassionate scientist, and they vigorously dispute his recommendation that policy makers should consider ecologically separating the Mississippi River system from the Great Lakes.

Mr. Lodge sees Asian carp as just the latest example of “biological pollution” — invasive species that the public belatedly has recognized as the source of substantial harm to local environments, economies and public health.

“It’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle,” said Mr. Lodge, who heads the University of Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative. “It’s not like other forms of pollution, where we can stop pouring carbon dioxide into the environment or stop discharging raw sewage, and things will get better. Once you’ve put a bunch of carp in an environment and they start reproducing, you can stop putting them in but they will still keep spreading.”

As a boy growing up in Alabama and Georgia, Mr. Lodge said, he loved “catching things in lakes and streams.” He probably transported his share of invasive species into the backyard pond he built as a teenager, he said.

After studying as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, he immersed himself in the world of invasives in his first academic job, at the University of Wisconsin, conducting research into an invasion of crayfish from the Ohio River basin into the lakes of northern Wisconsin.

The first time he fished at Trout Lake in Wisconsin in 1982, Mr. Lodge said, “the bottom was covered with vegetation — like an underwater forest, with snails of every sort. Three years later, after an invasion of rusty crayfish had marched through, I couldn’t find a snail, and the underwater forests had been clear-cut.”

Mr. Lodge emerged as an authority on invasive species as the issue gained attention in the 1990s. He served as the first chairman of the White House Invasive Species Advisory Council under President Bill Clinton and has advised state and municipal governments. Locally, Mr. Lodge helped the Chicago Department of Environment decide which species to ban for import in the aquarium and pet trades.

“The extent he’s gotten involved in policy is very unusual,” said Reuben Keller, a former student of Mr. Lodge and now a lecturer at the University of Chicago. “Generally in academia you get points for publishing papers, and you get the most points for deep theoretical papers. Policy makers have a completely different view of the world and different priorities.”

The forays into policy are not always easy. In 2008, the Army Corps of Engineers hired Mr. Lodge to use his eDNA test to look for Asian carp in Chicago waterways. Mr. Lodge said his research found eDNA — microscopic traces of genetic material — that indicated live Asian carp had swum past the corps’ $10 million electric barrier. Currently, the Army Corps’ electric barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, about 25 miles from Lake Michigan, is the only thing blocking Asian carp from the lake.

Critics say the eDNA could have gotten there by other means, including through people’s releasing Asian carp or bits of flesh carried by barges. The corps does not accept Mr. Lodge’s conclusion that the barrier has failed to stop the carp.

Mr. Lodge’s research led to a complex legal tussle. Based on the eDNA tests, the State of Michigan sued Illinois last year in the United States Supreme Court, demanding that locks in the Chicago area be closed as an emergency measure.

After the Supreme Court declined to hear Michigan’s case, the state sued the corps in federal court in Chicago. During hearings last September, the corps’ lawyer claimed Mr. Lodge’s findings did not prove that carp had passed the electric barrier.

Mr. Lodge countered that his findings had been endorsed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Later, his research was published in a peer-reviewed journal.

David Rieser, a Chicago lawyer for a coalition of industries that rely on local waterways, says Mr. Lodge’s opinions have undue influence on his scientific findings, and he sought to have Mr. Lodge’s testimony thrown out during Michigan’s lawsuit against the corps.

“It’s clear the position he’s pushing in terms of the ultimate policy issue has an impact on how he talks about the information,” Mr. Rieser said.

Mr. Lodge disagrees. “It’s frustrating to be misrepresented and misunderstood,” he said. “What I’m an advocate for is good science and the use of good science.”

Marshall Meyers, a Washington lawyer who represents zoos and the pet and aquarium industries, met Mr. Lodge a decade ago while they served on the federal Invasive Species Advisory Council. Then, Mr. Meyers said, “he was very much the pure scientist, and he had a certain amount of disdain for industry.”

That is less the case today, Mr. Meyers said. “Some in the science community can be very rigid,” he said. “I find David to be open-minded, a good communicator, willing to talk and interact with people from all arenas.”

Mr. Lodge is now taking a lead role in measuring the impact of releasing ballast water from commercial ships — an issue he said is as important as Asian carp.

Most invasive species that enter the Great Lakes do so through ballast water, taken on by ships for stability. When the ships discharge ballast, any organisms are released with it.

Last month, the E.P.A. announced its first mandatory limits on the amount of organisms that shippers can discharge in ballast. Mr. Lodge is helping to draft the regulations.

“The Great Lakes are connected by only a few degrees of separation from every other port on the planet,” Mr. Lodge said. “So there’s a risk of invasion by species from everywhere.”