Casey Merkle is a nature-culture-sustainability scholar from the Rhode Island School of Design, an educator, and artist. Her research dives into watery landscapes, bridging human perception and our representations of space. Casey has an MA in Nature-Culture-Sustainability Studies from RISD, and a BA in Biology from Lawrence University.

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The End of the Great Lakes and Aquatic Invasive Species

Fall 2020
The End of the Great Lakes and Aquatic Invasive Species

By Casey Merkle


People love the ocean. People also love freshwater lakes. When I ask friends, do you prefer the lake or the ocean? Their answer largely depends on the place they grew up. My home was in a suburb of Chicago. The neighborhood I grew up in was built around a human built lake, turned shallow swimming pond. Tower Lakes was the name of my tiny community. Children ran around barefoot through peoples’ yards to the beach, never missing a day of sunshine over the summer. Growing up in the Midwest I was fortunate to have a one-hour trip to the coastline of Lake Michigan. After I graduated college, I moved to the city and worked at Lincoln Park Zoo. Every morning at 7am, I’d grab a granola bar and hustle my way along Chicago’s lakefront, fighting the strong winds that kissed my face with its cool mist. Winter forced me into the packed bus along with fifty other passengers in the morning trying to avoid the windchills of Lake Michigan that shock your bones and numb your hearing. More than once, I’d hit the yellow step to open the door and fail, shouting from the back “STOP AT THE ZOO PLEASE!” For me, the sight of Lake Michigan as I stepped off the bus and turned to cross the street energized me for the day. Even if it did bring tears to my eyes. Not from joy, but from the icy winds. Lake Michigan can could make me cry, laugh, scream, and angry, but mostly I was in bewilderment. It gave me life, yet it could take it away just as easily. The Great Lakes and myself are tied to each other in a multi-species entanglement, shaping each other’s practices of living and dying, as Haraway’s staying with the trouble, becoming-with(Haraway 2016). The Great Lakes rendering-capable of life and death.
Facing the Great Lakes

When I ask myself, do I prefer the lake or the ocean? To me, I can’t decide because they both carry a deep, lonely, and mysterious past, present and future. No one understands me and my Great Lakes sweatshirt that is covered in shipwrecks with their date, coordinates (or none where they never recovered the ship), and the number of people dead. People ask me why do I like the Great Lakes so much? Because, I related to them. I, too, feel a sense of loneliness and emptiness at times. It will become clearer as to how the Great Lakes and I share these feelings. I believe it has something to do with semiosis, a system of meaningful signs. Language is more than the audible communication carried out by humans; it encompasses the complexities of intersubjective and interspecies dialogue, involving nature and humanity (Gagliano 2017). The Great Lakes, as an entity, has a system of meaningful signs that over time, humans have learned and passed down through generations. Those signs mirror a reaction in myself. This is the Great Lakes call for help, to be set free of its suffering.

Tens of millions of Americans rely on the fresh water for drinking, sustenance, work, and recreation. Out of the world’s supply of surface fresh water, the Great Lakes hold 20 percent. The Great Lakes and humans share an extricable relationship, at least, through a dependence on drinking water for 30 million people. A Greatrelationship with the Great Lakes, should be a two-way street. But, from the perspective of the Great Lakes, I’m sure the last two centuries has felt more like a one-way street. Geologically speaking, the Great Lakes has not even batted an eye at this blip of suffering.

Who am I to the Great Lakes?

Living in naturecultures means developing a self-reflexivity, continually wrestling with the interconnections of natures and culture, politics and science, the humanities and the sciences, and feminisms and science (Subramaniam 2001). I self-reflect on research I conducted my senior year on an aquatic invasive species (AIS) in the Great Lakes. To supplement my reflection and lessons, I will examine other cases of AIS as well, including zebra mussels, the round goby, the Great Lakes sea lamprey, and Asian carp. I will attempt an imaginative reconstruction of the spiny water flea and outcomes of my research. I, as the human actor performed scientific work in relation to many objects and subjects of study. Following Banu Subramanian’s inspiration from Italo Calvino, I will approach this essay as a mental exercise of undoing my disciplining. This is important because my practice was learned under a patriarchal and strict rule of western scientific epistemology. My focus was on the AIS, but I want to reject that narrow vision to expand outward peering into the ethos, the lifeworld, the umwelt (Von Uexküll 1934) of the Great Lakes. This will help relate my studies to people, multi-species, politics, art, global trade, money, and all things that become-with the Great Lakes.

I will situate myself back onto the boat in Green Bay, Lake Michigan and recreate a map of my knowledges and methodologies. I recognize that I learned a particular and refined method of classifying, analyzing, and scientific writing. This will challenge me as I will have to turn the gears back and begin writing a new narrative challenging my own studies and the approach to raising public awareness of AIS, as well as posing the question that no aquatic ecologist, or policy maker, studying the Great Lakes wants to answer… is it time to give up on preventing the spread of AIS? Who is really behind the degradation of the Great Lakes? Who or whom is the invasive species?

How I landed in the Great Lakes

In 2016 and 2017, a pattern of unexpected events led me to captain my own small ship. Well, the ship belonged to the university, and it would be more accurate to call the ship a boat. I liked to imagine that I could take off in that boat anytime. I’d leave all my studies behind and let the Great Lakes be my teacher. I was a student researcher in an aquatic ecology lab studying the impacts of AIS on the Fox River and Green Bay ecosystem which is part of the long-outstretched arm of water separated by the Door County peninsula in Lake Michigan. The summer of 2016 was a scorcher. I was 20 years old living in a small dorm on campus with no air conditioning and a cup of noodles, a bag of potatoes, and carrots to sustain me. The power was shut off for one week straight, which forced me to spend extra hours in the lab counting and classifying species of aquatic species. The lab was my escape from outside where the sidewalks could cook a full egg and sausage breakfast. My time was split either in the lab or on the windy shores of Green Bay with our research boat, The Daphnia. I worked in a lab with four women. Our professor was an older man with a white mustache and kind, blue eyes. We all shared an interest in the health and stability of the Fox River and Green Bay ecosystem. Long days were spent collecting samples of fish, invertebrates, zooplankton, algae and measuring biodiversity. The Fox River is an important route that allows for cargo ships to dock in Green Bay, WI. As we were going out to collect samples, one large cargo shipped passed us. I could feel the vibrations of such a large object move through our small boat out through my fingertips. Our sampling sites showed clear connections between nature and culture.  It was unsettling to watch the large ship go through the shallow canal. Compard to our small boat which got stuck once due to complications with our sampling equipment, I wondered how much scraping and scouring occurred between the steel ship and the lake bottom.

Becoming-withthe Spiny Water Flea

Any day of the week, I’d rather do group work, but to graduate with a biology major I had to develop an independent thesis. Because I loved taking the boat out to collect samples, I chose to focus my research on a type of aquatic invasive species (AIS) called the spiny water flea, a relatively large zooplankton that has a long spiny tail. At the time, my professor was asked to monitor their population in Green Bay and to note any interesting findings. That was my task. I’d head out into the choppy waters of Green Bay and toss our zooplankton net out behind the boat to tow along collecting little water fleas. My main interests were water quality and community ecology and their connection to the introduction of the spiny water flea in Green Bay. I began to understand how the spiny water flea shift competition between predator and prey relationships that resulted in visible and cultural changes to the ecosystem. Though it would seem these changes happen under the surface, there is an entanglement of species, fisherman, chemicals, water quality, politics, morph our conceptions of political, economic and cultural contexts. I was certain that the spiny water flea was responsible for negative impacts on Green Bay’s ecosystem. What I lacked in my knowledge was the history of Green Bay. My thesis needed more context to describe what happened leading up to the establishment of the spiny water flea in Green Bay. There were more factors at play in this story that I had yet to uncover.

Speaking of Natureculture

Nature and culture, are co-constituted, entangled processes of semiotic as well as material. An analysis of my past research and multiple AIS stories, emerges a history of “naturecultures”, tracing and elaborating the inextricable interconnections between natures and cultures (Subramaniam 2001). What I am trying to understand about AIS is hidden underwater, above ground, and within the subterranean of the Great Lakes. Habitat, biodiversity, history, geology, science, politics all becoming-with this “natureculture” story.

Through this essay, I will tell stories of AIS that are important to understand in the inextricable connection between nature and culture of the Great Lakes. My goal is not to ignore the spread of AIS, but to reimagine their significance and deconstruct the fear around AIS. To what extent is aquatic invasive species (AIS) management necessary? How has the spiny water flea (discourse) shaped politics and culture of the Great Lakes?

Socio-ecological Thinking

First, I should take a deep breath and remind myself of the definitions pertinent to this story. The term ecology has gone through many definitions since the 1800s. “Ecology” was coined by the German zoologist Erns Heakel in 1866. It was generally defined as organized knowledge about a vast array of relationships among species and their environments. Reading from Keywords for Environmental Studies, I understand ecology as the observation of interrelationships with and within organisms, ecosystems, and human culture which not only shape the natural world but also shape situated knowledges of our present and future of humanity. Ecology as I approach my thinking, involves the environmental and social sciences working together (Seidler, 2016).

The Great Lakes


For a long period of time, humans have caused habitat destruction on the Great Lakes. Impacts have risen due to industrialization and globalization, and are a result of physical, chemical, and biological changes to the environment leading to species extinction, habitat pollution, habitat loss, and non-indigenous species introductions. Before humans, the origin of the watershed is a product of multiple glaciations during the late Cenozoic as well as redirected drainage, particularly during retreat of the last ice sheet. A twist of fate in the geological becoming of the land separated the water into the five Great Lakes, Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, and Superior. At one point, the water flowed through them as one on the surface, but scouring of the rock created deep depressions for the five Great Lakes to become what they are today. Though they are called the Five Great Lakes, the water is always flowing between them down a slow-moving river west to east. The Niagra Falls cascade from Lake Erie into the waters of Lake Ontario below. It is estimated that in 50,000 years the falls will disappear and with it the cliffs that have separated the upper Great Lakes from the Eastern Seaboard. The slow-moving river will become fast, creating a new geological landscape through forceful erosion. Eventually, the once Great Lakes will lower until it meets sea level.


The land was covered in dense impenetrable forest and was navigable only by canoe. Residing in the region for many generations prior to settlers, were the Miami (also called Maumee). The language spoken in the Great Lakes region was Algonquin, and other Native American tribes resided in the region, including Ojibwa, Ottawa, Menominee, and Potawatomi). French traders and explorers were the first Europeans to arrive in the Great Lakes region between 1550-1600. The king of France sent them to chart the river systems as highways facilitating access into the interior of North America. The Great Lakes include, Lake Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. They hold over 5,400 cubic miles of water – therefore accounts for 21% of the world’s surface freshwater. These inland freshwater seas, provide water for drinking, shipping, power (electrically and conceptually), recreation, aquatic life, agriculture, and more. North America relies on the Great Lakes for 84% of their surface fresh water.

Ecological Economics

Economy is not independent from ecology, or the natural world. Rather, it is an ongoing effort that integrates the study, ecological economics, of what is desirable to what is sustainable on our finite planet (Costanza 2016). The Great Lakes are an ecological economy, with natural capital in water supply, climate regulation, habitat for species, food, recreation, transportation, and cultural amenities. Integrated with social and cultural capital, the Great Lakes are a hub where natureculture connections forge through social networks, cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, trust, and a sense of belonging.

Becoming-with Global Trade

There are five ports in the United States, including Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Duluth, and Milwaukee. Canada’s major ports: Toledo, Port Colborne, and Toronto. Coined an Economic Powerhouse, coastal areas represent strong economic and ecological engines in the Great Lakes. For every dollar spent in Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding, an estimated $3.35 in economic activity is produced. A total in $3.1 trillion gross domestic product, employs 25.8 million people, supports $1.3 trillion in wages contributes to this developed economy. This shipping system is called the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway (Seaway). The story of the Seaway is a quite a drama. It was one of those ideas where you look back and wonder how did nobody foresee this becoming a nightmare? But, during the 1950s when the Seaway was constructed, the race for control over industry and shipping was well underway. Global, national, as well as regional competition drove the opening of the Seaway. At one point, the Seaway oversea shipping peaked at 23.1 million tons per year in 1970. Today, about 200 million tons per year of raw industrial materials like ore, sand, salt, and chemicals are shipping within the North Atlantic coast shipping industry. In 1959, a Pennsylvania news reporter claimed it was a grand mistake, “The St. Lawrence Seaway, a dream of midwestern and Canadian shippers for a half century, has now been operating for a month. Experience has been more than a dream, however in some respects in borders on nightmare.” Why the Seaway was constructed is complicated. One major reason was to increase exports to foreign countries. In Detroit, Chrysler predicted that 80 percent of its auto exports would be swept up by the Seaway. It was the gateway to the rest of the world and every Great Lakes coastal city wanted a piece. It was about expanding power, capital, and control. At the time, Chicagoans had a “second-city complex” that they wanted to subside. Having access to a port out to sea would allow them to compete for the “first-city” beating NYC. As I’ve learned, humans are prone to mistakes. After great costs were expended to build the Seaway, which included flooding large towns and people being forced to move within a one-year notice, it barely makes a dent to match the shipping pace of trains and trucks. Now, less than 5% of the Great Lakes shipping industry is overseas. Duluth paid millions for the construction of a special shipping crane in hopes of enticing shipping container imports. It remained idle for 20 years. A large part of this shortfall was that the Seaway is covered in ice over the winter and has a shorter shipping season compared to ground shipping. Great Lakes coastal cities wanted to increase their capital through exports. Instead, by opening up the Seaway and inviting in overseas imports they also invited aquatic invasive species. Let’s not point the finger at foreign imports to be at fault for this. For it was the United States and Canada that funded the Seaway.

Since the Seaway was opened in 1959, it has acted as a corridor for aquatic species to traverse. The journey isn’t on their own. They are trapped in up to six million gallons of ballast water, which is used to maintain balance of a ship. Once the ballast water is discharged from a ship, any organisms that were picked up at its place of origin is released in exchange for cargo. Scientists have recorded that this water can carry up to billions of living organisms. Within these organisms could be a traveler that is forced to make its home in the freshwater of the Great Lakes. They need to survive in their new home and if they can, they will. In this part of the story, the economy drove people to alter the hydrology of the Great Lakes, which in turn resulted in a gain of species into the Great Lakes ethos.

Aquatic Invasive Species and the Great Lakes

Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) or Non-Indigenous Species (NIS)

Before discussing several cases of AIS in the Great Lakes, we should pause to define this area of science that I spend most of my time thinking about, called invasion biology. I prefer to not isolate invasion biology because invasion biology is not a separate study but an integrated part to ecology. Rather, I prefer to think about my studies from the standpoint of community ecology. As an aquatic ecologist, I investigate the factors that influence community structure, biodiversity, and the distribution and abundance of species. These human and non-human factors include interactions with the abiotic world and the diverse array of interactions that occur between non-human and human species. Invasion biology is the study of invasive organisms and the processes of species invasion. The USGS describes that biological invasions are the second leading cause of extinction behind habitat destruction. Habitat destruction weakens the integrity of an ecosystem and makes it susceptible to invasive species. Habitat destruction influences the opening of the door for species invasion. If humans are the cause of habitat destruction, then the species invasion that seems of significance would be the invasion of humans and its impacts on the planet. My point being, biological invasions cannot be the second leading cause of extinction. Habitat destruction is the umbrella for all other causes of extinction. The point of hierarchy is mute.

The Lake Sturgeon

The lakes sustain a variety of aquatic species, including the endemic Lake Sturgeon. These prehistoric, dinosaur fish, can travel up to 1000 miles. On one of my trips to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, I entered the Great Lakes exhibit. They have a touch tank where several of these large sturgeons live. They swim about with their long bodies bumping against the tank. Each time they hit the side of the tank; their massive weight sends reverberations through the floor up into my body. Their skin is shiny, black as the night, and smooth to the touch. When I pressed two fingers against their skin, it felt unlike any other fish. They don’t have scales the way most freshwater fish do. Instead their skin is partly cartilaginous skeleton, so it feels like a slimy balloon stretched thin over pebbly rocks. Lake Sturgeon are now extinct in most of its ancient spawning grounds due to overfishing and pollution. The industrial revolution lead to an appearance of mercury and lead in the Great Lakes. Also, the flushing of raw sewage, dioxins, acid rain, PCBs, and fertilizers into the lakes decreased their population by 99%. By the 1980s things started to improve due to governmental regulations on air and water pollution.

The Bald Eagle and Sea Lamprey

Another species that inhabits the Great Lakes region is the Bald Eagle. Since the pesticide DDT was banned in the 1970’s, this North American bird of prey has made an impressive recovery. Recently, their numbers have started to decline and researchers were perplexed by the sudden dip. Nest monitors found that the Bald Eagles were feeding their young an unusual type of fish, long and slender with a suction disk mouth filled with small sharp, rasping teeth and a file-like tongue (Figure 3). This fish, the Sea Lamprey, uses this tongue to attach to fish, puncture the skin, and drain the fish’s body fluids. They also produce an anticoagulant in their saliva to ensure that the blood of the host fish does not clog while they feed. I’ve never seen a sea lamprey in person, but in pictures, they look not at all appetizing. The chicks of bald eagles cannot digest the sea lampreys. The mothers, unknowingly feed their chicks a poisonous meal. This is the innocence of the species that gives pause to consider the entanglement of species here. The sea lamprey wasn’t always a readily available food source (albeit poison) for bald eagle chicks. They were introduced to the Great Lakes 80 years ago, some purposefully introduced. As the bald eagle is a national symbol, the U.S. funds plenty of research to protect their population. Adult Bald Eagles do, in fact, eat spawning lamprey. DNA data suggests that the sea lampreys may have been living in Lake Ontario for thousands of years. There’s more to the story of sea lampreys and their connection to bald eagles. Researchers have yet to study what the sea lamprey may be ingesting in its habitat that might lead to bald eagle chicks dying. It’s clear that fear of the sea lamprey takes precedent over habitat health. I can understand why people have a fear of this species. They look like the monster from the television series Stranger Things (Figure 4). In this story, the bald eagle and sea lamprey innocently becoming entangled in media, science, politics and death. Is there a happy ending for the bald eagle? Death for sea lampreys at the claws of the mother eagle, life is at stake for the baby chicks. Do researchers stop at the sea lamprey as the responsible one? Empathize with the sea lamprey for a moment. As an innocent species, the sea lamprey, like other lampreys, is food for the bald eagle chicks. Consider the toxin, DDT. It was banned and the eagles made a recovery. What if other trace toxins, such as microplastics, are making their way from the sea lamprey to the baby chicks, leading to death?

Sea lamprey mouth courtesy of (left) and illustration of Stranger Things monster courtesy of (right)

The Round Goby and Lake Erie Water Snake

A few other species that have been introduced to the Great Lakes include the round goby, zebra mussels, and Asian carp. The summer after my junior year of college, I spent a portion of my research setting traps for round goby monitoring along the shores of Green Bay, Lake Michigan. They had already started to thrive in most of Lake Michigan, but it was unknown how wide spread they were through Green Bay. In Lake Erie, the round goby established itself – with human assistance – caused population declines of many native fish due to a limitation on nesting sites that the round goby was very good at competing against other fish to win. Waiting in the crevices of rocks along the shore was the Lake Erie water snake. Historically, this snake ate mudpuppies and native fish. After the round goby became established, the snake turned its head toward the new neighbor as a food source. Today, the water snake’s diet consists of 90 percent round goby and 10 percent mudpuppies and native fish.

Zebra Mussels

I try not to rank species, but truly, my least favorite of these non-indigenous species (NIS) is the zebra mussel. Mostly, my disdain towards them comes from the repeated pain I felt each time one of these sharp creatures sliced the bottom of my foot. I learned to adapt to their presence. Now, I never go in to shallow waters of the Great Lakes without proper footwear. This is especially important when the bottom is rocky. This action is part of my co-habitation with the zebra mussel. In great numbers, the zebra mussel and the quagga mussel, its close cousin, are incredibly efficient filter feeders. They are passive filter feeders, meaning their life is spent attached to a rocky surface with their mouths hanging open to slurp up nutrients all day and all night long. In great numbers, their filtering has led to a shift in the Great Lakes ecology. The food web changes, water becomes clearer, and coat water intake pipes. They haven’t only spread to the United States. They are introduced and established in many countries worldwide. The link between humans, water, and zebra mussels is strong. Where there is a human presence, there is more likely presence of zebra mussels. And, they’re connected through the water with which we drink, play, and bathe.

The Asian Carp

Asian Carp are another actor in the Great Lakes that were introduced via the Mississippi river. The governance that has focused on keeping the Asian carp out of the Great Lakes is remarkable. In 2002, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed an electric fish barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The canal connects the Mississippi River drainage basin (via the Illinois River and its tributary the Des Plaines River) to the Great Lakes Waterway (via the Chicago River) and is the “only” navigable aquatic link between these basins. By focusing on the “only” navigable aquatic link between the basins, they ignore humans are the main vector, or driver, of the spread of non-indigenous species. Blocking off the waterway with an electric fish barrier doesn’t just hurt the Asian carp, but other fish get caught up in this tension between human and carp. At one point, there was concern about the Asian carp that they poisoned the Chicago River, only to find that no Asian carp had come up that far, yet. Or they had already travelled through, but the feeding at the bottom of the Chicago river maybe subpar, meaning carp don’t like the habitat as it doesn’t sustain their bottom feeding habits. Common carp are abundant through the Great Lakes. First noted in 1931, they’ve been widespread for a long period of time. People used common carp as a food fish in the late 19th century. More recently, angling for common carp has become a popular sport amongst anglers in the United States. Common carp and Asian carp (grass, black, silver, and bighead carp) fill the same niche as bottom feeders. They don’t have a significant biological advantage over the other. The term Asian carp is questionable to say the least. However, I’m not suggesting a name change. It can be described as simple as non-indigenous species are named based on where they originate. Alas, nothing is ever that simple. It’s only as simple as we choose it to be. I also want to be clear that I don’t believe the term “Asian carp” is at its core, a racist name. Rather, the surrounding rhetoric that is used to describe the invasion of “Asian carp” is perpetuating a fear of ‘other’ and by association creates a nationalistic and racially charged fear of Asian. I think what scientists are getting at is to play off of peoples’ fears of ‘other’ which quickly becomes cyclic.

“Asian carp” is used to describe multiple species of carp, so would it be clearer if we called them by their species name instead of by the group species (i.e. grass carp, black carp, silver carp, and bighead carp)? Or, couldn’t they all fall into the category of common carp? A debate in science communication and journalism exists around the terminology of Asian carp. For example, in The Atlantic a journalist writes, “Asian carp aren’t just offending Midwestern waterways. They’re offending the politically correct.” I think journalists need to be careful when discussing this terminology. The focus isn’t on the naming, but the rhetoric that surrounds it to create fear of the species in question. The argument of The Atlantic journalist is that “These fish are called Asian carp because the species comes from Asia. It’s simple really.” While I agree that the Asian carp is just a carp that came from Asia, the Asian carp is an actor that is part of a broader narrative in invasion biology. This narrative is informed by the acts of desperate scientists and journalists that use fear tactics as a way to alert the public of invasive species. By simplifying the Asian carp to just its name, the journalist ignores the harmful rhetoric that scientists and communicators use to cause concern about the Asian carp’s harmful potential effects on the Great Lakes fishing industry. In fact, the journalist glossed over the explanation for changing the name of Asian carp to invasive carp given by Democratic state senator from Minnesota, John Hoffman, “Caucasians brought them to America. Should we call them ‘Caucasian carp?’ They have names. Let’s call them what they are.” I believe this point is crucial to the article. It highlights that the root of the problem driving AIS is not the species itself, but that humans degraded the habitat to make it susceptible to invasion, and also acted like a taxi cab for AIS to hail a ride directly into the Great Lakes. Narrowly focusing on the AIS is beside the point. The point is here, and The Atlanticarticle is all the way out on planet Mars.

Return to the Spiny Water Flea

Let’s revisit my friend the spiny water flea. We visited various actors that make up the Great Lakes interconnected web of life, including fish, invertebrates, and bird of prey. Now, I will take you deep into the microscopic world of zooplankton and phytoplankton. Break the surface tension of the water, travel down the water column, pass tiny darting water bugs as we go down to through the murky waters until we reach the bottom. At the bottom, we’ll wriggle through the muck where the bottom-feeders dwell. The amount of time I spent on the water to collect samples of these tiny critters affected my world view. I no longer just saw the world by what was in front of me. I could trace the invisible connections that were occurring all around me and through me. The mystery of what is invisible has a strong presence in my life.

Zooplankton Community Ecology

My first publication was called Bythotrephes longimanus in shallow, nearshore waters: Interactions with Leptodora kindtii, impacts on zooplankton, and implications for secondary dispersal from southern Green Bay, Lake Michigan. The spiny water flea, Bythotrephes longimanus, is a predatory zooplankton. They feed on other zooplankton, like the Daphnia. Once established, spiny water fleas alter the food web by eating the same food that Leptodora kindtii, another larger zooplankton feed on. Leptodorais an important food for juvenile fish. When Leptodora populations decline, the juvenile fish struggle. If the puzzle pieces all fit into place, the juvenile fish would be able to feed on both Leptodor and Bythotrephes but the long spiny tail of Bythotrephes makes it unappetizing and difficult to fit in the tiny mouths of juvenile fish. When the juvenile fish populations struggle, fisherman have a problematic season. The implications for secondary dispersal meant that because Bythotrephes was established in shallow waters of Green Bay, all the boats that dock in the marina there could be potential carriers. Bythotrephes could be picked up by a boat motor and carried to an inland lake at the hand of humans.

A female spiny water flea with four baby spiny water fleas in her sack.

A female spiny water flea with four baby spiny water fleas in her sack.

Fox Wolf-River, Paper, and Fishermen

My research on the spiny water flea was situated in Wisconsin’s Fox-Wolf River Basin including Green Bay. Wisconsin’s economy flourished because of its prime location along the Great Lakes waterways which provided access for international and national trade. The Fox-Wolf River Basin was well-known for its industrial and agricultural use. It drains over 15,500 square kilometers (6,000 square miles) and provides transportation routes throughout northeastern Wisconsin (Ball et al. 1985). The watershed includes the largest inland lake in Wisconsin, Lake Winnebago which drains into southern Green Bay via the Fox River. At this connection point, the most severe deterioration of water quality persists. Where the bay meets the river shows extremely low abundance of life indicated by the lack of bottom-dwelling organisms (Balch et al. 1956). Through the 1800’s, industrialization boosted the economy around the Great Lakes and along the Fox River. The lower Fox River provided industrial water supply, commercial shipping, recreational boating, fishing, and swimming. Between 1900 and 1970, the river maintained its industrial and commercial uses, including a booming paper company, foundries, and wastewater treatment plants. These human constructed entities caused pollution that affected the entire watershed. Slowly, recreational activities disappeared due to the river’s poor condition. The pollution from anthropogenic mistreatment traveled downstream and collected into Green Bay, Lake Michigan.

The first noticeable impact by spiny water fleas was on fishermen. The tail spines get hooked on fishing lines and large clumps of them fouls fishing gear. They’ve been implicated as a factor in the decline of alewife in Lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron, and Michigan. They are also a food source for fish including yellow perch, white perch, walleye, bass, alewife, chub, chinook salmon, emerald shiner, rainbow smelt, lake herring, lake whitefish and deepwater sculpin. Will they remain invasive if they play an important role in the food web? When will they no longer be considered invasive?

Spiny Water Flea in Media


This invasive species is a voracious ‘Alien’ found in lakes

To gain the attention of the public, scientists took to making militant videos and using rhetoric that creates fear toward the spiny water flea. Consider this video with a fake newspaper clipping titled, “Spiny Water Fleas plan further invasion of inland lakes!”. In this video, the spiny water flea general is portrayed as a fearful character dressed in military uniform. The scientists living in the world of the spiny water flea begin to obsess, as they further reject the notion that the species cannot be controlled. “We begin to obsess about our different natures and cultures with a fervent nationalism, stressing the need to close our borders to those "outsiders." (Subramanian 2016). An act of obsession was closing the lockes (similar to a dam) along the Fox River to keep invasive species from entering the Great Lakes. Scientists and policy makers attempt to control the flow of the Fox River to the inland lakes, the reverse direction as well. Borrowing from Mel Chen, who theorized the animacy of lead in culture, we’ve done the same to the spiny water flea. This notion of animacy, objects and things gain a sense of animacy as part of culture. The reiteration of alien, also contribute to this sense of animacy as something ‘other’ to fear. Spiny water flea has been animated (as the military general) to being more controlling than it is. The spiny water flea will remain in the Great Lakes and multi-species (human and non-human) entanglements are becoming-with its establishment.

Fear of AIS

“No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.”

- Edmund Burke, On the Sublime

To control people and take away power of the individual to act and reason, you create fear. As with the aforementioned AIS, culture has created fear around AIS. During my research on the spiny water flea, I felt myself fighting what can’t be won, a battle of the imagination. News articles and research paper titles shared the common phrases, dangerous invaders, silent invaders, or LITTLE THINGS BIG PROBLEM. People are fearful of spiny water fleas, and if they haven’t heard of them, then they are afraid of the sea lampreys, the zebra mussels, the round goby, or the Asian carp. Imagine, a creature that has no mal intent. Rather, it’s just trying to live, the same as I do. I was afraid and willing to fight. But, turns out I was fighting myself.

Fear is driving people away from the heart of what drives biological invasions. The focus needs to lean more towards restoration, preventing habitat degradation, and protecting what habitat is left so the Great Lakes ecosystem can find balance. Humans are imperfect. There have been mistakes made, catastrophic mistakes – world shattering mistakes. So, why not admit that humans are the cause of these mistakes, shift the blame to ourselves that are responsible for introducing AIS into the Great Lakes? If humans are part of the system, then was it natural for the introduction of AIS in the Great Lakes? Was it inevitable? Darwin reasoned that these victories were inevitable. Different species might adapt to a particular ecological niche in different parts of the world. Put them in the same place, in the same niche, and one might well outcompete the other because it has evolved superior attributes.

Reflection and Lingering Questions

I reflect on the research. Have I unmade what I learned about AIS? There is still a part of me that gets fired up about the spiny water flea spreading to inland lakes. But, for the most part, I think I have broadened my vision to explore the interconnectedness between nature and culture that includes spiny water fleas, the Great Lakes, politics, media, art, money, and researchers, like myself. Rather than obsess over the innocent creature, I rethink my own position in this natureculture story. I have noticed that I prefer not to call the creatures invasive species, but transported species. Tying the action of human transport to the name itself, gives context to the issue at heart – the real invasive species being humans. In my personal reflection, I feel that there is no fighting transported species, but becoming-with. Humans have to learn to live with consequences of our actions, including transported species. This marks the end of the Great Lakes and AIS for me. I am dealing with transported species. The Great Lakes are not ending, but the way I have known them for the last 25 years has ended. I now see them as an ethos, with a lifeworld of its own. The next questions I have left on the table are pointed at corporations from the 1960s to present that pay researchers to study AIS. Are they part of a ploy to further this notion of fear around AIS in the Great Lakes? Are corporations playing the “scientist” to place blame for poor water quality and pollution on innocent creatures?


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