Author’s invasive species book gives clarity to sometimes murky topic

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published April 12, 2017

 William Rapai, of Grosse Pointe City, holds a copy of his second book, “Lake Invaders,” which was named a 2017 Michigan Notable Book.

William Rapai, of Grosse Pointe City, holds a copy of his second book, “Lake Invaders,” which was named a 2017 Michigan Notable Book.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

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GROSSE POINTE CITY — Like many of his neighbors, William Rapai enjoys spending time on Lake St. Clair. But the 19-year Grosse Pointe City resident found himself puzzling over changes in the lake over the last decade — most noticeably, an increase in water clarity.

While most people would assume that clearer water is a sign of a healthier lake, it’s more complicated than that.

“Something happened, and it was really quick,” Rapai said. “But what and why?”

Those questions became the basis for “Lake Invaders: Invasive Species and the Battle for the Future of the Great Lakes” from Wayne State University Press. The book was recently named a 2017 Michigan Notable Book; Rapai also received this honor in 2013 for another environmental work, “The Kirtland’s Warbler: The Story of a Bird’s Fight Against Extinction and the People Who Saved It.”

Rapai has been invited to discuss his book in front of the Macomb County Democrats during a program at 11 a.m. April 17 at Sajo’s Restaurant, 36470 Moravian Drive in Clinton Township; this event is open to the public.

“I tried to make the book as politically neutral as possible, because the Great Lakes are nonpartisan,” Rapai said. “Discussion of protecting the Great Lakes should be politically neutral. … We all have an interest in protecting the Great Lakes because we all receive pleasure from them, whether that pleasure is swimming or fishing or just gazing out at them.”

Asian carp — there are actually four varieties: bighead, silver, black and grass — grab most of the attention when it comes to public discourse on invasive species that threaten the Great Lakes, but there are many others. Species like quagga and zebra mussels, alewife, spiny water flea, rusty crayfish, Eurasian watermilfoil and the scarily toothy sea lamprey — whose multi-fanged mouth, looking like a horror-movie monster, appears prominently on the “Lake Invaders” cover — have done tremendous damage to the ecosystem of the Great Lakes. Rapai looks at these creatures and what they have done, singly and sometimes in unintentional tandem with one another.

The book has been praised by environmental experts, including Dave Dempsey, former member of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and author of “On the Brink: The Great Lakes in the 21st Century.”

“William Rapai’s ‘Lake Invaders’ is a seminal book on a profound threat to the Great Lakes,” Dempsey wrote. “He engages the reader in the history and status of invasive species in the world’s largest freshwater system. His lively prose and field interviews distinguish this book from others. You will be entertained as well as educated.”

An amateur naturalist and former newspaper journalist who has worked for the Detroit Free Press and the Boston Globe, Rapai applied his experience as a reporter to the writing of “Lake Invaders,” taking complex scientific topics and translating them for a lay audience. He also spoke to fishermen and other average citizens as well as scientists, and they all have compelling stories to tell.

“A lot of people are mystified by science,” Rapai said. “I wanted to demystify science. … When I wrote the book, I decided I did not want to talk down to people, but I also wanted to make certain concepts clear.”

Rapai, who spent about 2 1/2 years researching and conducting interviews for “Lake Invaders,” was surprised by “how easy it is” for invasive species to get into the Great Lakes in the first place. Only a few years ago, one of his daughters — then in third grade — was working with rusty crayfish in a school science class. At the end of the lesson, the students were left with the fish, and parents — thinking they were doing the humane thing — unknowingly dumped the crayfish into Lake St. Clair.

Rapai, the longtime president of the Grosse Pointe Audubon Society, hopes to demonstrate that ordinary citizens can play a role in protecting local waterways. For example, he said people should never toss anything from their aquarium into a lake, stream, river or pond, nor should they order illegal plants or fish online. Boaters should make sure they don’t transfer water or aquatic plant material from one lake to another. And because a nonnative species can creep into bait, Rapai said anglers should throw away all unused bait at the end of the day, not drop it in the lake.

“We all have a responsibility. … Eradication is impossible, so prevention is the answer,” he said. “It’s far cheaper to prevent something from getting in someplace than to deal with it when it’s there.”

To purchase a copy of “Lake Invaders” or for more information, visit www.wsupress.wayne.edu.

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