O P E N I N G   S T A T E M E N T

Senator George V. Voinovich

EPW Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, and Water

Hearing on S. 525, the National Aquatic Invasive Species Act of 2003

Tuesday June 17, 2003

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Mr. Chairman, thank you for calling today’s hearing on the National Aquatic Invasive Species Act of 2003.  Although you do not represent a Great Lakes or coastal state, you have recognized that the issue of invasive species is a problem that plagues our entire nation.  As a Senator from Ohio whose northern boundary is Lake Erie, and as cosponsor of the bill before this Subcommittee today, I truly appreciate you turning your attention to this important issue.

 

The issue of invasive species is very important to restoring and protecting one of our nation’s greatest natural resources – the Great Lakes.  I am pleased to welcome James Weakley, who is here to testify.  He is the President of the Lake Carriers’ Association and is from my home town of Cleveland, Ohio, right on the coast of Lake Erie.

 

Lake Erie’s ecology has come a long way since I was elected to the state legislature in 1966.  During that time, Lake Erie formed the northern border of my district and it was known worldwide as a dying lake.  Lake Erie’s decline was covered extensively by the media and became an international symbol of pollution and environmental degradation.  Its problems were so well-known that the British Broadcasting Company sent a film crew to make a documentary about it.

 

Thirty-seven years ago, when I saw firsthand the effects of pollution on Lake Erie and the surrounding region, I knew we had to do more to protect the environment for our children and grandchildren.  As a state legislator, I made a commitment to stop the deterioration of the Lake and to wage the “Second Battle of Lake Erie” to reclaim and restore Ohio’s Great Lake.  I have continued this fight throughout my career – as County Commissioner, State Legislator, Lieutenant Governor, Mayor of Cleveland, Governor of Ohio, and now United States Senator.  I consider my efforts to preserve and protect Lake Erie and all of the Great Lakes to be among the most significant of my career and of my life.

 

It is comforting to me that in the 37 years since I started my career in public service, I am still involved, as a member of the United States Senate and our Committee on Environment and Public Works, in the battle to save Lake Erie and all the Great Lakes.

 

Today in Ohio, we celebrate Lake Erie’s improved water quality.  It is a habitat to countless species of wildlife, a vital resource to the area’s tourism, transportation, and recreation industries, and the main source of drinking water for many Ohioans.  Unfortunately, however, there is still a great deal that needs to be done to improve and protect Ohio’s greatest natural asset.

 


I have taken several specific steps in the 108TH Congress to ensure that the Great Lakes are protected and receive the attention they deserve.  I proposed an amendment that was included in the FY2003 Omnibus Appropriations bill to extend the current moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the Great Lakes until the end of fiscal year 2005.

 

Additionally, we must protect the area and specifically the wetlands around the Great Lakes.  With almost 98 percent of the costal wetland system that existed in western Lake Erie lost over the past two centuries, I was pleased that Congress passed earlier this year my bill to expand the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.

 

Recently, the General Accounting Office reported that while there are many federal, state, and local programs, restoration of the Great Lakes is being hindered because there is no coordination or unified strategy for these activities.  Furthermore, the GAO found that although more than a billion dollars has been spent since 1992, it is not possible to comprehensively assess restoration progress in the Great Lakes because overall indicators do not exist.

 

The conclusions of this GAO report confirm concerns I have had that the Great Lakes are not receiving the attention they deserve.  As Chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, I plan to hold an oversight hearing on management of Great Lakes environmental programs.  In addition, I cosponsored legislation (S. 1116) to direct the Great Lakes National Program Office to develop, implement, monitor, and report on a series of indicators of water quality and related environmental factors in the Great Lakes.  This bill would expand the Lake Erie Water Quality Index that I created as Governor to cover all of the Great Lakes.

 

Through the years, we have seen great progress in the restoration of the Great Lakes, but they remain threatened by a grave enemy – aquatic invasive species.  These species threaten the health and viability of the Great Lakes fishery and ecosystem.  I am worried about these aquatic terrorists in the ballast water of boats from all over the world.  These invasive species are already wreaking havoc in the Lakes and our coastal waters – and will continue to do so until they are stopped.

 

Since the 1800s, over 145 invasive species have colonized in the Great Lakes.  Since 1990, when legislation to address aquatic nuisance species was first enacted, we have averaged about one new invader each year.  Clearly, we have not closed the door to invasive species.   I am deeply troubled by the surge in new invasive species in Lake Erie, because once a species establishes itself, there is virtually no way to eliminate it.

 

Because I know firsthand the damage these species can cause – as I have seen the Lakes become infiltrated with Zebra and quagga mussels, gobies, sea lampreys, and a variety of other species – I am involved in a fight to keep another invasive species out of the Great Lakes – the Asian Carp.  I cosponsored an amendment that was included in the FY2003 Omnibus Appropriations bill to provide funds to continue operation of the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal Dispersal Barrier, which is the last line of defense to a very big and destructive fish.  Fortunately, the bill before the Subcommittee today expands on the existing program by improving the Barrier project.

As Mayor of Cleveland in the 1980s, I was alarmed about the introduction of zebra mussels into the Great Lakes and conducted the first national meeting to investigate the problem.  It is a complicated situation, and we are still learning how invasive species like the zebra mussel affect the ecosystem.

 

This past August, for example, I conducted a field hearing of the Environment and Public Works Committee to examine the increasingly extensive oxygen depletion – or hypoxia – in the central basin of Lake Erie.  This phenomenon has been referred to as a “dead zone” and has been associated with massive fish kills, toxic algae blooms, and bad-tasting or bad-smelling water.

 

Hypoxia is usually the result of decaying algae blooms which consume oxygen at the bottom of the lake.  In the past, excessive phosphorus loading from point sources such as municipal sewage treatment plants were greatly responsible for algae blooms.  Since 1965, the level of phosphorus entering the Lake has been reduced by about 50 percent.  These reductions have resulted in smaller quantities of algae and more oxygen going into the system.

 

In recent years, overall phosphorus levels in the Lake have been increasing, but the amount of phosphorus entering it has not.  Scientists are unable to account for the increased levels of phosphorus in the Lake.  One hypothesis is the influence of two aquatic nuisance species – the zebra and quagga mussels.  Although their influence is not well understood, they may be altering the way phosphorus cycles through the system. 

 

Another way zebra mussels could be responsible for oxygen depletion in Lake Erie is due to their ability to filter and clear vast quantities of lake water.  Clearer water allows light to penetrate deeper into the Lake, encouraging additional organic growth on the bottom.  When this organic material decays, it consumes oxygen.

 

This year, I introduced the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research Amendments Act of 2003 (S. 937) to reauthorize and expand the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998 to include the Great Lakes.  The research authorized by the original Act focused only on coastal marine waters, although these problems exist throughout the Great Lakes.  We need to focus our research and dollars not only on coastal marine waters, but also on these troubling situations in the Great Lakes.

 

It is my understanding that Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and John Breaux (D-LA) have also introduced a bill (S. 247) to reauthorize the Act and that the Commerce Committee will be marking up this legislation on Thursday.  I also understand that they will be including the provisions in my bill that deal with the Great Lakes.  I thank them for their leadership on this issue and for recognizing the importance of expanding this program to include the Great Lakes.

 

However, more needs to be done.  The possible link between Lake Erie’s dead zone problem and invasive species underscores the seriousness of this problem.  Aquatic invasive species readily spread through interconnected waterways and are extremely difficult to treat safely.  Over the last 30 years, we have made remarkable progress in improving water quality and restoring the natural resources of our nation’s aquatic areas, and we need to prevent any backsliding on this progress.

 

While these species are a particular problem, I recognize that both terrestrial and aquatic invasive species cause significant economic and ecological damage throughout North America.  Recent estimates state that invasive species cost the U.S. at least $138 billion per year and that 42 percent of the species on the Threatened and Endangered Lists are at risk primarily due to invasive species. 

 

In 1999, President Clinton issued an Executive Order creating the National Invasive Species Council to develop a national management plan for invasive species and to bring together the federal agencies responsible for managing them.  This was a promising plan that has never been fully implemented.  The National Invasive Species Management Plan was issued in 2001, but agencies with responsibilities under the plan have been slow to complete activities by the established due dates.  Moreover, the agencies do not always act in a coordinated manner.

 

The General Accounting Office released a report in October 2002 that showed that implementing the Management Plan was possibly being hampered by the lack of a congressional mandate for the Council.  It is disturbing to me that this Council exists but is not making substantial progress.  Make no mistake about it; these species are not waiting for the federal government to get all of its ducks in a row.  Instead, they are continuing to invade the waters and lands of the U.S.

 

To correct this problem by legislatively establishing the Council, I am pleased to be an original cosponsor of the National Invasive Species Council Act (S. 536).  I am interested to hear from the witnesses their thoughts on this legislation as well as any other recommendations they may have.

 

The National Aquatic Invasive Species Act attempts to address the introduction, screening, response, research, and hopefully eradication of these aquatic terrorists.  We cannot afford to wait any longer in taking real and measurable steps to address the invasion of our waters.  We must act quickly to strengthen our nation’s efforts to prevent invasive species from wreaking havoc on the Great Lakes’ aquatic habitat and throughout the U.S.

 

Again, Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing.  This lineup of witnesses is extraordinary and I thank all of the expert witnesses who are here today.  I look forward to their input on this very important legislation.

 

Thank you.

 

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