Writing on the Double Yellow Line

Militant moderate, unwilling to concede any longer the terms of debate to the strident ideologues on the fringe. If you are a Democrat or a Republican, you're an ideologue. If you're a "moderate" who votes a nearly straight party-ticket, you're still an ideologue, but you at least have the decency to be ashamed of your ideology. ...and you're lying in the meantime.

Location: Illinois, United States

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Invasion of the Algae-Snatchers

Swimming with the Enemy
– or –
Invasion of the Algae-Snatchers
©2012 Ross Williams

In 1986 a cargo ship docked on the south shore of Ontario, on Lake Erie, flushed its ballast tanks and gave the North American continent a European freshwater bivalve mollusk called the zebra mussel. Its presence in mostly US freshwater lakes, rivers and streams has been met with universally unfavorable reviews.

A few years later, the zebra’s cousin – named the quagga mussel – made its own appearance. Critics don’t like this one any better.

It’s not that there aren’t drawbacks to these creatures being in our waters; they aren’t native and that’s always dicey. They grow quickly and attach themselves to every available hard surface in the water, including intake pipes, filtering screens, outflow pipes, ship hulls, plants, and each other. They are prodigious parents as their rapid expansion from southern Ontario into all of the Great Lakes, Mississippi River, Missouri River, Ohio River, Hudson River, Tennessee River, Arkansas River – their tributaries and more – would attest, having all become infested in just 25 years.

These things are definitely problematic. They have clogged public water supply pipes, industrial facilities, and power plants in the US and there is no indication that they have the same effect in their native Russian/Ukrainian range in the Dneiper River [quagga] or the Ural River [zebra].

If it weren’t for the bad press these two clams have gotten, they’d have no press at all. This might indicate that only bad press exists, but that isn’t so. Good press abounds, although no one seems to have taken notice of it. It’s mostly in how one chooses to look at it, I’ve noted, and most people don’t like good news.

This is especially the case, it would seem, among modern scientists. The natural world is always changing, but Science seems to have taken the view that the natural world as it existed in 1955 was the epitome of naturalness, and they have decided that any divergence from that baseline is bad, wrong, unnatural and – in a spate of hairshirt self-loathing – a man-made disaster that mankind must fix for a feeble and doddering Mother Nature.

Shorelines change constantly, and sometimes quite rapidly, but Science has decided that beach erosion is a side-effect of global warming and must be reversed. Climate itself changes constantly, and sometimes quite rapidly – and the biology, geology and archaeology of the Ice Ages, little or otherwise, depends on it – yet any current change in climate is ... well, we’ve been through that.

In short, though, modern science has cast nature in stone and resists any and all change to it, regardless if the change is natural, or even probable, with or without human involvement.

One of these natural and probable changes is the migration and eradication of plants and animals. Among the best explanations for the decline of the dinosaurs is the migration of native gut bacteria into populations having different gut bacteria, and infecting those new populations through fecal matter. It isn’t only humans who have to worry about drinking the water in Mexico. It’s every animal, for over a billion years.

Who’s to say whether the zebra and the quagga would have relocated from Western Russia to North America all by itself? The fact is, it’s here, and it’s not going away. We need to determine what it’s good for, and how to handle its annoyances.

First: somebody who’s good at mechanics needs to start a company that will ream out intake and outflow pipes, scrape off filter screens, collect the scrapings and repurpose it. [Nota bene: “repurpose” is modern eco-speak for “sell”. I’m well aware that we have a growing distaste for capitalism and profit nowadays, particularly among the hard-core ecologically-minded, and we suffer from the collectivist delusion that anyone who does something swell should be doing it for a loss, and never, ever taking money for it. Be a rebel: go into business and make money. Your heirs will thank you.]

If anyone has a hard time thinking what use old, dead mussel shells would serve, grind them up and give them to me. I need to buy crushed oyster shell for my hens; it’s the same stuff and I’d rather get it for free. That would be swell.

The good news about these Russian clams is there’s no real indication that they are displacing native mollusks in any great number; they’re cohabiting quite well. Nor are they displacing fish. Additionally, there are native species willing to eat the invaders – just not enough predators to make a significant dent. This suggests that Mother Nature’s reaction would be to increase in the population of ducks, geese, crayfish and, when exposed by low tide, gulls. ...which means that our scientists might not allow this to occur.

If not scientists, politicians at the very least will put a stop to it. Chicago is zebra mussel-Central, since this was where they jumped from the Great Lakes into the Mississippi River system, through the canals and rivers connecting Lake Michigan to the Illinois River. Chicago and its suburbs have laws which dissuade geese from collecting in city parks – geese make a mess by pooping all over everything. Sorta like pigeons, but different, apparently. Zebra mussels are an under-water annoyance and invisible to all but the geese; goose shit is a shoe-bottom annoyance. Guess which one gets political priority?

Both zebra and quagga mussels are highly proficient water filterers. A modest-sized quagga can filter a liter of water in a day, removing algae, phytoplankton, bacteria and suspended silt. Not to mention PCBs and other such pollutants. Zebras are, if anything, better at it than quaggas. Heavily infested lakes have shown significant improvements in water clarity, which allows light infiltration to reach greater depths, and which allows for greater biological viability of our lakes.

Here’s another business venture idea, free of charge, for that’s just the swell kinda guy I am: zebra mussels as first stage water purification for municipal water supplies.

Critics determined to have bad news will claim that clearer water which allows more sunlight at greater depth also keeps our lakes warmer, which is a global warming kinda thing. And, well, with the good there’s always some gooder, so I can see why this might be an issue to some.

Another criticism is that less phytoplankton – the one-celled aquatic organisms that aren’t called “algae” or “bacteria” – are eaten by the zooplankton, which are those aquatic critters that look like sci-fi monsters under the microscope. Less zooplankton means less food for those things that eat zooplankton, which are ... um ... a few types of native mollusks and fish, the ones which are not being adversely affected by a decrease in zooplankton due to the invasion by Ukrainian clams.

Oh, and bacteria! Like everything else, when zooplankton die from old age because they aren’t being eaten by the less-plentiful native mollusks, their carcasses settle to the bottom of the lake where they decompose and feed the multiplying bacteria. These bacteria either work aerobically and make carbon dioxide out of it, or they work anaerobically and make methane. In either case, it’s another global warming kinda thing, but one which will undoubtedly have quite a number of rationalists to rationalize for us. Let me get the ball rolling, here: global warming which is caused non-anthropomorphically is a good thing; however, reducing global warming by anthropomorphically introducing non-native species which act to reduce otherwise natural greenhouse gas emissions is a bad thing.

Plus, zebra mussels increase greenhouse gas emissions anyway, by pooping and pseudo-pooping. One of the things filtered out of fresh water is silt – fine-grained minerals suspended in water that cannot be eaten. Zebras and quaggas collect silt, wrap it up in mucus and expel it; it is now heavy enough to settle to the bottom as “pseudofeces”. Both the feces and false-feces decompose and feed a type of water-borne bacteria that is harmless to humans, but which the zebras and quaggas eat – along with all the other bacteria in the water, many of which are harmful to us.

So, as should be obvious by now, apart from clogging up pipes and filters, the effect of these clams is pretty much one big yawn. The risk to the ecosystem posed by these non-native species don’t appear to be occurring. Their main effect seems to be interfering with human activities.

The answer to this problem, at least as far as the government’s literature is concerned, appears to be confined to a wide range of baby/bathwater slash and burn ideas, the most insipid of which is the genetic manipulation of a type of soil bacteria which is harmless to humans, and turning it into a germ that will infect and kill these European bivalve mollusks. They want to anthropomorphically introduce a Genetically Modified Organism as a second non-native species to combat the first non-native species. And if this bacteria manages to find its way into the Baltic region where these two species came from ... that’s Europe’s problem.

I can see why everyone would love the government’s solution, since it meets all the currently mandatory criteria:
1] a facile belief that what mankind does to nature, while engaged in making money, is selfish and intrinsically evil;
2] an equally facile, not to mention insupportable belief that nature is incompetent to look after itself; and
3] a third facile, not to mention insupportable, and further not to mention hypocritical belief that whatever mankind does to nature, so long as it is done to counteract economic gain, and at public expense, is selfless and intrinsically moral.

Of course, as if it needs to be said, nothing whatsoever could go wrong with this plan. The notion of simply scraping the problem out of the pipes and selling crushed shells to anyone who needs raw calcium, though, is obviously a corrupt response of a corrupt system. Someone might actually turn an evil profit from it, and we can’t have that. Can we?


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