The production of plastic was first viewed as a miracle, the birth of a surprisingly durable material. But used as a disposable material, that durability is part of its downfall. Plastic degrades very slowly, and it often ends up in the environment and in the food chain. In 1950, the global market generated 1.7 million tons of plastic. This amount has been steadily rising, reaching 300 million tons in 2013. A tremendous amount of this plastic is disposable and completely avoidable.
The Great Lakes are a significant area of concern for plastic waste, and plastic straws are among the top ten most frequently collected items during Great Lakes beach cleanups. One sweep of a fairly well maintained Great Lakes beach resulted in 414 straws in just a couple of hours. In 2016, 29,500 straws were recorded as part of cleanups.
What you can do:
Skip the Straw. Often, a drink is served at a restaurant with a straw (or sometimes two) simply for decoration. When ordering a drink, you can ask for no straw.
Use a reusable straw. Some straws are made of reusable materials such as glass or steel. If a straw is needed or desired, opt for one of these instead.
Make an impact. If you are serving a drink, ask if a straw is preferred. Encourage businesses to switch to compostable straws or to go strawless entirely.
In 1918, a US-Canadian commission reported on the condition of the boundary waters between the two countries with an emphasis on the connecting waters of the Great Lakes. In the words of the International Joint Commission, the situation was a disgrace.
It was also fatal to thousands. At the time, many communities drew their drinking water from rivers into which upstream communities dumped their typically untreated sewage. Predictably, disease resulted. Typhoid and cholera outbreaks were not rare.
Among the boundary waters studied were the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers. The Commission also compiled health statistics from communities relying on the two waterways for drinking water, including Port Huron, St. Clair, Marine City, Algonac, Detroit, River Rouge, Ecorse, Wyandotte and Trenton. The results were striking: typhoid fever death rates were highest in cities whose community water supplies were drawn from the foulest water.
The St. Clair River was too polluted for drinking without extensive treatment for 34 miles south of Port Huron. Even worse was the Detroit River. “From Fighting Island to the mouth of the river the water is grossly polluted and totally unfit as a source of water supply…Unfortunately, Wyandotte, Trenton and Amherstburg are taking their water supplies from this part of the river,” the Commission said.
Those on land weren’t the only victims. In 1907, a steamer traveling the Great Lakes pulled drinking water from the Detroit River, resulting in 77 cases of typhoid fever. In 1913, on three Great Lakes vessels carrying 750 people, there were 300 cases of diarrhea, 52 cases of typhoid and seven deaths.
The report helped spur governments along the border, including Detroit and downstream communities, to chlorinate drinking water supplies and save lives.
We look back on such practices as primitive. But 100 years from now, which of our practices will seem primitive to our descendants?
Have we really come so far in a century, or are we creating a new generation of problems with the same shortsightedness as our ancestors? The public trust doctrine, with its intergenerational concerns and duties, can help us prevent and resolve the mistreatment of our waters.
Almost everyone agrees: the old state fish hatchery on the Au Sable River in Grayling is the worst place you could pick for a commercial fish farming operation. It is on the East Branch, just upstream from the famed Holy Waters, the heart of Michigan’s blue ribbon trout fishing industry, and the premier wild trout fishing destination east of the Mississippi. But due to a combination of factors, including politics, greed and governmental lawlessness at the state and local level, that’s exactly what is happening.
The state deeded the hatchery to Crawford County subject to a statute passed by the legislature and a deed which limited use of the property to public recreation and museum purposes, and which required the county to preserve the public’s right of ingress and egress for fishing. But in 2012, the Director of the Department of Natural Resources signed away the state’s right to enforce those restrictions. Crawford County leased the hatchery to the fish farm for 20 years for $1. The river is fenced off. In October of this year, a judge ruled that operation of the fish farm “clearly violates the statute and deed,” but the DNR has been sluggish at best in rectifying the situation.
The fish farm will pollute the river, so it needs a Clean Water Act pollution discharge permit, which was willingly granted by the Department of Environmental Quality with the urging of the Department of Agriculture and the Farm Bureau. It was justified on the basis that the operator would profit, 2-3 jobs would be created, and the hatchery would stay open as a tourist attraction in the summer (which could have been accomplished without degrading the river with a fish farm). Damage to the multi-million dollar sport fishing industry in the area, and the jobs it supports, was not even considered.
Photo credit: John Russell
At permit limits, the fish farm will discharge about 160,000 pounds of solids (fish feces and uneaten feed) and over 1,600 pounds of phosphorous into the river every year. It currently has no water treatment system, and none is planned, other than a low-tech “system” of “quiescent zones” which might be implemented at an unknown time in the future. The pollution will cause algae to grow, and the solids will create sludge beds. These will harm aquatic insects which the fish eat, reduce dissolved oxygen which they need to breathe, and increase the risk of Whirling Disease, which can decimate a fishery if it reaches epidemic levels. Escaping fish could breed and dilute the wild trout gene pool. Technology exists to remedy the problem, but the operator says it is too expensive.
All of this violated the property transfer statute, the deed, state and federal clean water laws, the non-degradation rule, and regulatory standards for phosphorous and dissolved oxygen in cold-water streams. And it violates the public trust right of the people to have access to the river for fishing and other recreational pursuits. It appropriates public trust waters for private gain.
The case is in litigation. Attorney, experts and other costs have exceeded $400,000 so far, with a long way to go.
The state’s approval of this operation shows either a lack of understanding of its public trust responsibilities – or a willful disregard of them. It will once again be up to citizens to do what their state government is supposed to do – assure there is no impairment of public waters for private benefit.
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Tom Baird is a board member of FLOW and the past President of the Anglers of the Au Sable.
Congressman Dan Kildee Introduces Legislation to Protect the Great Lakes, Michigan’s Sport Fishing Industry
Kildee Seeks to Address For-Profit Fish Farming that Poses New Threats to Michigan’s Waterways, including the Au Sable River
FENTON – Congressman Dan Kildee (MI-05), flanked by sports fishermen and conservationists at Red Fox Outfitters in Fenton, today announced that he has introduced new legislation in Congress to ban harmful aquaculture practices in both the Great Lakes and federally designated “Wild and Scenic Rivers,” which includes the Au Sable River. The new bills are part of Congressman Kildee’s continued efforts to protect the Great Lakes and Michigan’s rivers from pollution, disease and invasive species.
Aquaculture is the commercial raising of fish in ponds, rivers or lakes. If not done correctly, it has been shown to increase pollution, destroy sensitive fish habitats, spread disease and introduce non-native species. Sadly, other states have seen polluted waterways that have crippled local economies as a result of bad aquaculture practices. A commercial fish farm facility in Pennsylvania on Big Spring Creek – once a famous trout stream – collapsed the region’s fishing industry in the 1970s.
“Like many Michiganders, I have fond memories spending time up north on the lakes or fishing in the river with my family. For everyone in our state, our water is precious, and that’s why we have to always protect it from harm. Whether it is invasive species like Asian Carp, Canada’s plan to store nuclear waste on the shore of the Great Lakes or commercial fish farming, I will always fight to protect Michigan’s freshwater and the vital jobs that depend on it,” said Congressman Kildee.
Currently, a commercial aquaculture facility near Grayling has a state-issued permit, through the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, to expand its fish farming operation by 15 times its current size. The expansion will pollute the “Holy Waters” of the Au Sable River, one of Michigan’s 16 rivers designated a “Wild and Scenic River” by the federal government based on its unique ecosystems and pristine scenery.
Congressman Kildee’s two bills include:
The Ban Aquaculture in the Great Lakes Act, which would ban aquaculture facilities in the Great Lakes, ending the current patchwork of state laws that attempt to regulate such commercial fishing.
The Preserving Fishing on Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which would ban aquaculture facilities on Wild and Scenic Rivers and its tributaries, such as the Au Sable River, unless such facilities are shown not to discharge pollutants into the river.
Banning aquaculture has support from a vast majority of Michiganders, as well as lawmakers and conservation groups. According to a recent poll, 68 percent of Michiganders oppose aquaculture in the Great Lakes. Additionally, this issue is not a partisan one; Republicans in the Michigan Legislature have previously introduced legislation to ban aquaculture in the Great Lakes and in Michigan waterways.
Congressman Kildee’s legislation also has support from the Anglers of the Au Sable, Michigan Trout Unlimited, Michigan United Conservation Clubs, Michigan Salmon and Steelhead Association and For the Love of Water (FLOW).
“Anglers of the Au Sable applauds Congressman Kildee for addressing an overlooked Great Lakes water issue, the introduction of pollutants by fish farms into the Lakes and connecting waterways,” said Tom Baird, president of the organization that focuses on improving fishing on the Au Sable River. “It is vital that fish farms be operated in a way that protects the cleanliness of our rivers and lakes, which are in a delicate balance easily tipped by addition of wastes from aquaculture done improperly. Flow through systems that use rivers as virtually open sewers are of particular concern to those of us who fish for trout, which need clean, cold water to thrive. This legislation would ensure only properly regulated fish farms which don’t pollute are allowed on designated rivers.”
“The Michigan Steelhead and Salmon Fishermen’s Association is one of the largest sport fishing organizations in the Great Lakes Basin. Our mission is to protect, promote and enhance sport fishing in the Great Lakes and connecting water ways. We are proud to support legislation to prohibit aquaculture in the Great Lakes and to prohibit aquaculture operations that contribute to pollution of wild and scenic rivers,” said Dennis Eade, Executive Director of the Michigan Steelhead & Salmon Fishermen’s Association.
“We appreciate Congressman Kildee’s leadership on this very important sportsmen’s issue. Aquaculture facilities across the globe that are connected to public water bodies have proven to be disastrous for water quality and fish health. Our $4 billion fishery in Michigan drives local economies, creates jobs, and connects millions of Michigan citizens to our long and storied heritage as the premier fishing destination in North America,” said Michigan United Conservation Club.