John Rothlisberger

Ph.D. Biology

Addressing Pressing Ecological Problems

The Great Lakes are in crisis. These five lakes, which contain twenty percent of the world’s fresh water and support a $7-billion-a-year fishing industry, comprise a prized national resource that is under attack on many fronts. One of the most significant threats to the Lakes is the looming invasion by Asian carp—a huge, voracious species of fish that was introduced into Louisiana in the 1970s to clean up algae from ponds—that have been making their way steadily up the Mississippi River and now into the man-made canal that links the river to Lake Michigan.

While Asian carp have grabbed the headlines, they are just one of the many invasive species that threaten the lakes. And, there are other environmental stressors as well—pollution, climate change, and coastal habitat destruction.

Notre Dame is playing a major role in the battle to save the Great Lakes, through both its Center for Aquatic Conservation and the individual work of biology faculty—most notably, the center’s director, David Lodge. Lodge’s former doctoral student, John Rothlisberger, has become a key player in the battle as well. As a graduate student at Notre Dame, Rothlisberger produced the first-ever estimate of the actual cost of non-native species that arrived in the ballast tanks of ocean-going vessels to the Great Lakes region: a staggering $200 million dollars annually in losses to commercial fishing, sport fishing, and the area’s water supply.

Now Rothlisberger is in a unique position. In August 2009, he successfully defended his dissertation and began a two-year position as a fellow with the United States Forest Service. Rothlisberger’s appointment coincided with Congressional authorization of $475 million for one of President Obama’s top legislative priorities: the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative—legislation that aims to protect and restore the natural ecosystems of the Great Lakes and their watersheds. As a fellow, Rothlisberger has been charged with several important assignments, including:

  • Developing a regional aquatic conservation strategy for the 20-state eastern region of the United States Forest Service.
  • Coordinating aquatic invasive species education and outreach efforts for the national forests in the region, including a mass-media campaign funded through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
  • Implementing a recreational boat inspection and cleaning demonstration project in the Ottawa National Forest (within the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan) to slow the spread of aquatic invasive species, most of which enter the Great Lakes attached to ships.
  • This project will serve as a pilot for boat inspection and cleaning programs on other national forests in the Great Lakes basin in upcoming years.
  • Representing the Forest Service on regional coordinating committees involved with aquatic conservation issues, including various fish habitat partnerships and regional aquatic nuisance species panels.
  • Participating in efforts to strategically fund and implement stream restoration projects on national forests in the region. These restoration efforts primarily include the removal of barriers—for example, small dams and culverts—to aquatic species’ passage and the reintroduction of large, woody debris to streams.

Rothlisberger is excited—not daunted—by the challenge. A native of Baltimore, he came to Notre Dame after receiving an undergraduate degree in conservation biology from Brigham Young University and a master’s in stream ecology from Utah State University. He explains that he chose Notre Dame for his doctoral work because, “I never wanted a career in esoteric research. Rather, I’ve always wanted to pursue highly relevant research that addresses pressing ecological problems.”