Clear Waters Spell Trouble

In new book, author Bill Rapai discusses how invasive species disrupt the ecology of Michigan lakes.
Round Goby and Zebra Mussels
Photography courtesy of Wayne State University Press

Bill Rapai had just finished writing one book when his curiosity led him to the edge of another and the waters of Lake St. Clair, where peculiar questions surfaced about its clarity. What he learned was troubling. Clear water is to be praised. No? In this case that was not at all clear.

“It had been a turbid lake,” explained Rapai, author of the 2016 Michigan Notable Book, “Lake Invaders: Invasive Species and the Battle for The Future of the Great Lakes,” published by Wayne State University Press. “You would stand on the pier and look down and not see the bottom. Then, boom! Suddenly the water was clear. I asked my biology friends why, and they said because the plankton is disappearing because of the quagga mussels and zebra mussels.”

The filter-feeding mussels, both natives of Eastern Europe and considered invasive species here, had stripped away the plankton needed to feed other organisms and fish, thus turning the lake ecology on its head. And the mussels, he came to learn, are only the tip of the invasive spear that ripped into the heart of the Great Lakes.

Rapai’s two-year journey researching his book revealed more than 180 invasive aquatic species now inhabit our inland seas. Not all do damage, but some have radically altered the lakes, and now often are transported into inland lakes by anglers, boaters and unaware lakefront property owners.

I wrote this because the Great Lakes are dear to me. I’d like the book to be a call for action.
— Bill Rapai

“I am cursed with the legacy of my mother who was a science teacher,” claims Rapai, a former Detroit Free Press and Boston Globe journalist who is well-known for his birdwatching interests and being president of Grosse Pointe Audubon for 18 years. His first book, “Kirtland’s Warbler: The Story of a Bird’s Fight Against Extinction and the People Who Saved It,” was a Michigan Notable Book in 2013.

“I’m naturally curious, and my mother made the natural world around me and my siblings so compelling and interesting,” he said.

Rapai’s book tells the stories of people who are affected by the aquatic invasion, the species’ life history, their sometimes-devastating impacts and historic roots. He explains sea lampreys, gobies, spiny waterfleas and rusty crayfish, the invasive water plants often ignored, and the politics and economics that enable their entry and limit their control.

“The more I looked, the more I saw there was a book here,” Rapai said. “These critters don’t just come in in the ballast water of ships. There are things that come in from the aquarium trade — like Eurasian milfoil. What do people do with their aquariums when they are done with them? They just dump them in the lakes.

Rusty Crayfish
Photography courtesy of Minnesota Sea Grant/Jeff Gunderson

“What worries me is that people don’t act until it affects them for things like hydrilla water lettuce and milfoil. Nothing is more pleasurable than to go out on the dock and take a swim, but no one does if the water is full of sea weed.”

Boaters and anglers need to be more aware, Rapai explained. They need to clean their boats, live-wells, outboards, trailers and bait buckets so invasive organisms aren’t moved from one lake to another.

“I wrote this because the Great Lakes are dear to me,” Rapai said. I’d like the book to be a call for action. I grew up in Detroit and spent a lot of time on Belle Isle as kid and my family’s cottage was in Monroe. I want people to understand what is happening.”

Rapai’s book is an important read for anyone living and playing on the water. It’s available from local and online booksellers.

Howard Meyerson is the managing editor for Michigan BLUE Magazine.

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