Carp study leaves no one happy
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — The surest way to keep rampaging Asian carp from gaining a foothold in the Great Lakes is to sever the link between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River basin, created by engineers in Chicago more than a century ago.
That would thrill environmentalists and those who make their living in the $7 billion Great Lakes fishing industry, which could be devastated by a carp invasion. Not so the barge operators who move millions of tons of commodities on the Chicago-area waterways each year.
And so, pulled in different directions by both, as well as politicians in the Great Lakes states, the Obama administration this week proposed a $78.5 million plan that appears to make no one happy.
“It appears to be politically negotiated rather than scientifically based ... sort of like trying to cut the baby in half,” said Thom Cmar, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defence Council. “It offers a lot of middle-ground alternatives with no discussion of why any of them would actually work.”
Shippers worry about a promised study that would examine closing more often a pair of navigational locks at Chicago, and the prospect that a long-term study could recommend severing the connection between the river and the lakes for good.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, fear the plan’s reliance on strengthening an electric barrier designed to block the carp’s advance — and other measures, such as stepping up efforts to find and kill fish that may have slipped through — is an expensive gamble that might not be enough to ward off an infestation.
“ We’re spending close to $80 million just for a short-term deterrent,” said Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, an environmental group. “We need to stop pushing money toward temporary solutions and get everyone on track toward investing in one that works for good — and that means absolute physical separation.”
Ontario is also concerned about the carp coming to the Great Lakes. The province’s Minister of Natural Resources Donna Cansfield has said the carp are a serious problem for the ecosystem and fishery.
Ontario has joined Minnesota, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and New York in supporting a Michigan lawsuit seeking closure of the locks and an eventual separation of the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River basin.
Bighead and silver carp — both native to Asia — have been migrating toward the lakes since escaping from Deep South fish ponds and sewage treatment plants in the 1970s. The biggest can reach 100 pounds and 4 feet long, consuming up to 40 per cent of their body weight daily in plankton, the base of the aquatic food chain. Once established in the lakes, the carp could starve out the prey fish on which popular species such as salmon and whitefish depend.
The carp have already infested parts of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, driving away many native fish. Silver carp are known to hurtle from the water at the sound of passing motors and slam into boaters with bone-breaking force.
While scientists differ on whether the carp would thrive in the Great Lakes, which are colder, deeper and ecologically different than rivers, many say the risk is too great to take any chances.
“None of us know for certain what their impact would be,” University of Notre Dame biologist David Lodge told a House subcommittee this week. “ There’s only one way to find out, and I don’t think any of us want that.”
To be fair, the solution environmentalists prefer — cutting ties between the lakes and the Mississippi — would mean reconfiguring some 70 miles of canals and rivers. That’s a massive undertaking that could not happen quickly. “ We cannot fight biology with engineering alone,” Cameron Davis, the Environmental Protection Agency’s spokesman on the issue, told the congressional panel.
Two Asian carp are displayed Tuesday, on Capitol Hill in Washington, during a Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment hearing on preventing the induction of the carp, an aquatic invasive species into the Great Lakes. The Asian carp, which can grow up to 100 pounds, were caught in Havana, Ill.