Invasive species -- ranging from sea lamprey to Asian carp -- are a constant concern in the Great Lakes region, and the fear of these aquatic creatures often dominates headlines.
Jessica and Brendan Walsh spent six years on a documentary examining how a few of these unwanted species made their way into the Great Lakes and what’s being done to stop them. Their documentary premiered on WTTW in Chicago last month, and it’s set to air on WNED (10 p.m. on Oct. 17 and 24) and in Michigan this month. We wanted to hear more from Jessica and Brendan about the documentary and why they decided to focus on the Great Lakes.
Note: the questions and answers have been edited for length.
Jessica Walsh, producer of Making Waves: Battle for the Great Lakes: Conservation and the health of the environment have always been important to us, and with our passion for nature and the Great Lakes, we knew we wanted to do something that could make a difference in the region.
Why the focus on invasive species?
J. Walsh: We knew a little about invasive species, but we didn’t know the whole story, and we certainly didn’t know how much the Great Lakes had been altered by them. Being from the Chicago area, Asian carp were in the news quite a bit at the time, but no one was really talking about the roughly 180 other invasive species already in the Great Lakes. We wanted to do something to let people know that while Asian carp are a big threat to the Lakes, they aren’t the only one.
How would you describe your upbringing in relation to the Great Lakes?
Brendan Walsh, Director of Photography for Making Waves: Battle for the Great Lakes: I grew up in the Chicago, a Great Lakes city, but one so large that it didn’t really rely on the Lakes in the way that many other Great Lakes cities do. People love to jog and bike the shoreline, but the Lake is a more like a beautiful backdrop, and there can be a bit of a disconnect there. I was also lucky enough to experience Lake Michigan in a completely different manner, since my family spent lots of time camping in Michigan. Visiting small towns up and down the coast that relied upon the Lake to keep their economies going, it was easy to see that the Lake wasn’t a backdrop there, it was the main attraction.
J. Walsh: I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and my maternal grandparents lived in Chicago, about two miles from Lake Michigan. I have many fond memories of summer days spent with family at the beaches in Chicago and nearby communities. Family vacations took us driving along Lakes Erie and Ontario and to Niagara Falls, but I don’t think it was until Brendan and I began dating and he began taking me fishing on trips up the east coast of Lake Michigan, that I found a deeper connection to the Great Lakes.
Which invasive species is the biggest threat in the Great Lakes?
B. Walsh: It’s hard to assess what could be the biggest threat because the ecosystem is already so heavily altered, but, if we’re purely looking at potential threat, the ability of an invasive to change the current ecosystem in a negative manner, then I’d have to say the sea lamprey. Luckily we have agencies doing amazing work to keep lamprey in check, but if they were to stop, we’d likely see a top-down collapse of the Great Lakes ecosystem.
J. Walsh: When the question then becomes, “What’s the next biggest threat that could be coming to the Great Lakes?”, that becomes even harder to answer. Of course many will say Asian carp; killer shrimp top some other lists, and there are many other species such as northern snakehead and monkey goby on the list of potential invaders. We can make an educated guess at what could be the next big invader, but that’s all it will be — a guess — until it’s actually here.
What do you hope viewers take away from Making Waves?
J. Walsh: We hope that viewers will take away an awareness of the problem of invasive species in the Great Lakes and hopefully feel inspired to do their part. That’s our main goal with the film — to raise awareness of the issue and help make it real for people, because, if they aren’t aware of the problem, how will they be able to help solve it? We recently heard from a friend who saw the documentary that since he learned about phragmites Australis (an invasive reed found along shorelines, marshy areas and roadsides), he’s now seeing it everywhere he goes. That’s what we’re talking about — opening people’s eyes to the problem and getting them to ask questions.
Should we be worried about invasive species impacting the Great Lakes?
J. Walsh: Fighting invasive species will be an ongoing battle. As long as we continue to interact with the Great Lakes, the threat of new invasive species will always be there. Any new invasive species holds the potential to negatively alter the ecosystem in a new and irreversible way, so the key now is to prevent any new invasive from entering. Education is the first step in prevention, and a better-educated public can help make sure that the efforts of so many organizations and researchers working to solve the problem of invasive species don’t go in vain.
What can regular people do to help?
J. Walsh: There is so much that the average person can do help stop the spread or introduction of invasive species that can truly make a massive difference. There are the straightforward actions people can take if they recreate on the lakes and rivers, such as cleaning, draining and drying boats, trailers, equipment and clothing before moving to another water body; disposing of unused bait in the trash; and never releasing a plant, animal or fish into a body of water unless it came from that body of water. For those who aren’t fishermen or boaters, things like never releasing an unwanted pet or plant into a waterway, reporting new invasive species you see in your community, and supporting organizations working to control and prevent invasives or restore native species and habitats can have a huge impact.
Where can we see Making Waves next?
J. Walsh: We’re working on getting Making Waves: Battle for the Great Lakes aired on PBS stations across the Great Lakes Region. The two-part series will next air in Buffalo and Southern Ontario on WNED, at 10 p.m. on Mondays, Oct. 17 and 24. The episodes will be re-run at 4 a.m. Oct. 22 and 29.
Making Waves will also air in two parts at 10 p.m. on Thursdays, Oct. 20 and 27 on Michigan PBS stations WCMU Mt. Pleasant, WCML Alpena, WCMV Cadillac, WCMW Manistee, and WCMZ Flint.
For viewers outside the Great Lakes Region, in the coming weeks we will begin offering Making Waves: Battle for the Great Lakes on DVD and online rental. For more information about viewing options and future PBS broadcasts, please visit our website, makingwavesdocumentary.com, and follow us on Facebook. You can watch the trailer for Making Waves: Battle for the Great Lakes here.