“As the Seaway turns 50, it’s time for a reality check,” said Jennifer Nalbone, Campaign Director of Invasive Species and Navigation for Great Lakes United. “Now is the perfect time to critically ask: ‘What changes does the maritime community need to make to protect the Great Lakes and the economies that rely on them?”
The St. Lawrence Seaway is a 189-mile (306-kilometre) maritime waterway between Montreal and Lake Ontario and was at one time heralded as an engineering marvel. During construction, portions of the St. Lawrence River were channelized and flooded and seven locks were built.
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 1977 at 57.7 million tonnes and has been declining since. From 1993-2003 the waterway averaged 35 million tonnes, operating at about its half capacity.
“The Seaway has chronically over promised and under-delivered,” said Jennifer Caddick, Executive Director of Save The River. “Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River communities were promised an ‘economic renaissance’, but instead, we were handed significant environmental problems. Instead of celebrating, the Seaway must honestly examine the past 50 years of damages and begin taking immediate steps to fix the problems.”
The environmental and economic damage associated with ongoing Seaway operations are significant. Since 1959, international shipping has been the primary source of new non-native aquatic invasive species, such as the zebra and quagga mussels in the Great Lakes. The University of Notre Dame estimates that such species cost citizens, businesses and cities in the eight Great Lakes states alone at least $200 million per year in damages to the commercial and recreational fisheries, wildlife watching tourism, and through increased water infrastructure costs. While exact economic data does not exist for the Great Lakes region in Canada, similar damages can be expected.
“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 of the National Wildlife Federation. “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.”
In addition to historic damages, the navigation industry must start planning now for the realities of climate change. Forecasts show that water levels in the next 50 years may be significantly lower. Conservation groups are raising the alarm that attempts to continue business as usual will dramatically increase the Seaway’s environmental impacts.
“Right now the industry sees few options to address climate change: reducing loads, which increases costs, or pushing for more dredging and channelization, which seriously damages the ecosystem. This sort of antiquated thinking – molding the ecosystem to fit shipper’s desires – is the same thinking that got the Seaway and the Great Lakes where they are today,” said Nalbone. “The reality is, we cannot dredge our way out of climate change impacts. The Seaway has an opportunity and a responsibility to reinvent itself.”
The groups contend that if the Seaway wants to remain viable for another 50 years, it must ensure that the influx of invasive species is stopped, that it aggressively plans to adapt to lower water levels in ways that will not damage the Great Lakes and St. River, and in turn becomes part of restoring the Great Lakes by charting a new, truly sustainable course for future operations. Failure to do so will put the livelihoods of the people and species that rely on these waters, as well as the industry itself, at stake.
Additional background material is available at www.glu.org/seaway50 including:
–a factsheet exploring some of the claims made by the Seaway Corporation;
–a collection of Seaway quotes from news articles, spanning the past 50 years; and,
–expert contacts for more in-depth information on various impacts of Seaway operations