What Happens When Humans Fall In Love With An Invasive Species

Read the full story at FiveThirtyEight.

Starting around 1979, smelt numbers in Lake Superior plummeted. In ’78, commercial fishing companies took in nearly 1.5 million pounds of smelt. A decade later, the haul was 182,000 pounds. There is no commercial smelt fishing on Lake Superior today. But because the smelt in Lake Superior are an invasive species, their decline is actually a sign that the lake is becoming healthier, ecologically speaking. From a cultural and economic perspective, though, the North Shore isn’t what it was. So is the decline of smelt something to celebrate? And if so, who should be throwing the party?

Some people miss the glory days of Lester River fishing even when evidence suggests that Lake Superior and the people who rely on it are better off now. Facts, it turns out, can’t always sway emotion or reshape business plans. And these issues are not unique to smelt. All over the world, you’ll find invasive species that are beloved by humans — even as these foreign plants and animals alter or damage the environment. The fight against invasive species is often framed as a technological problem — how do you selectively eliminate a species once it’s made itself at home in an environment? But in reality, it’s also a question of human hearts and minds. And those might be the harder obstacle to clear.

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