06/10/2013 04:21 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2013

Preventing Invasives Key to Great Lakes Ecology and Economy

Earlier this month, four governors and one Canadian premier met to commit to protecting the Great Lakes and strengthening the region's economy. As I said in my remarks to the Council of Great Lakes Governors, the correlation between these two issues--healthy ecosystems and healthy economies--could not be any more evident than it is in the Great Lakes.

This region, which holds 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water, is home to the fourth largest economy in the world. The abundance of fresh water, along with the region's fertile soils and mild climate, are huge assets to industry. Agriculture, shipping, fishing, hunting, tourism and more all rely on the Great Lakes.

But these waters are under increasing environmental pressures that threaten not only wildlife, but also the region's economy. One of the biggest challenges is the impact of aquatic invasive species, which we discussed at length during the summit. Organisms like zebra mussels enter lakes and waterways through commercial shipping and recreational boating. Other species, like Asian carp, are imported without considering the potential risks and are introduced to the ecosystem. Once they arrive, they wreak havoc, encroaching on native plant, fish and wildlife populations, decreasing biodiversity and even altering the food web.

They also wreak havoc on the economy. A 2012 report by Anderson Economic Group commissioned by The Nature Conservancy revealed that state and federal governments spend millions controlling and preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species. Industries like sport and commercial fishing, water treatment, power generation and tourism are all affected by this threat. Together, these industries employ more than 125,000 workers in the Great Lakes region. The cost of controlling zebra mussels at one power plant is approximately $1 million annually.

The Great Lakes region must work together to prevent and manage the further spread of invasive species. This month's summit was a critical step in that direction. It was encouraging to see the region's leaders discussing specific challenges they must address together, including the trade of live organisms, monitoring for and responding to the spread of invasive species and improving management of the invasive species that are already present in our lakes and rivers.

System-wide problems like these demand system-wide solutions and innovative management of shared resources. Reacting to species after they enter the Great Lakes only guarantees that these costs continue to grow, forever. Putting the right programs in place now is necessary to protect and restore healthy and productive ecosystems and local economies.

The good news is that the science, tools and much of the knowledge needed to put prevention, monitoring and response programs in place already exists. The next step is to formalize a process where we can learn from one another and apply that knowledge when and where it will do the most good.

At the end of the summit, I was encouraged by our leaders' commitment to do the right thing. They clearly recognized the responsibility they hold in governing the states and provinces that border one of the world's most valuable freshwater resources. Past governors and premiers have worked collaboratively to address threats to the Great Lakes. Today's leaders now have the opportunity to add to this legacy. The Nature Conservancy and the conservation community at large stand beside them, ready and willing to help.