As Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway Turns 50, Time for a Reality Check

Conservation groups urge managers of shipping corridor to be better stewards of Great Lakes.

06-25-2009 // Jeff Alexander

Fifty years after the St. Lawrence Seaway opened the Great Lakes to ocean freighters and a tidal wave of aquatic invasive species from around the planet, conservation groups are calling for changes in how the navigational corridor is operated.

The National Wildlife Federation joined Great Lakes United and Save the River in calling for policy and operational changes that address decades of environmental and economic damage caused by the operation of the Seaway.

Ocean ships imported cargo, foreign species

Since the Seaway opened in 1959, the ocean freighters it allowed into the heart of North America have imported 57 invasive species into the Great Lakes.

Those invaders now cause at least $200 million in economic and environmental damage annually, according to Notre Dame University researchers. Some invaders imported by ocean freighters, such as zebra and quagga mussels, are spreading to lakes and rivers across North America.

“The tremendous damage caused by invasive species from ocean-going vessel ballast water discharges are a prime reason why commercial shipping on the Great Lakes must change after 50 years,” said Marc Smith, a policy manager at the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center. “We have a host of potential solutions to this problem. It is time to use them so that we can provide security to the people, businesses and cities that have borne the brunt of the damage from the invasions.”

An economic underachiever

The Seaway is a series of manmade locks, canals and dams that completed a 189-mile maritime waterway capable of transporting freighters between Montreal and Lake Ontario. The project was heralded as an engineering marvel when it was completed.

The Seaway opened in 1959 amid forecasts that it would turn Great Lakes cities into world-class ports by linking the interior of North America to global trade. History has proven otherwise. Today, less than 7 percent of Great Lakes shipping traffic is international.

The Seaway’s busiest season was its first year of operation, while total tonnage peaked in 1978 at 56 million tons and has been declining since. The waterway was designed to handle 80 million tons per year.

The conservation groups contend that if the Seaway wants to remain viable for another 50 years, it must ensure that the damaging influx of invasive species is stopped.


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