States in the Great Lakes region are embroiled in a continuing fight to determine the best way to handle a potential invasion of Asian carp. Asian carp were introduced to the Southern United States in the 1970s to control algae in ponds. Flooding caused the release of the carp into the Mississippi River where they have been making their way North ever since.
Silver and bighead carp are the species of Asian carp thought to most immediately endanger the Great Lakes. Asian carp have recently been detected in Lake Michigan near the mouth of the Calumet River. Whether they have enough presence to establish a sustaining population is not yet known.
"Invasive species are enemy number one for the Great Lakes," says Jennifer Nalbone, director of invasive species and navigation for Great Lakes United. "Pollution from industrial sites is one thing, biological pollution is forever. We have yet to eradicate an invasive species from the Great Lakes."
The failure to eradicate any of the over 130 invasive species in the Great Lakes is not for lack of trying. Nalbone says that 20 million dollars are spent every year in an attempt to control the population of the sea lamprey alone.
The voracious Asian carp which now threaten the lakes can weigh up to 100 pounds and eat up to 40 percent of their body weight daily. They eat phytoplankton, a critical food source for native fish in the lakes.
Ohio, New York, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ontario have all filed with the U.S. Supreme court in support of Michigan's injunction to temporarily close the Chicago Sanitary and Shipping Canal to prevent Asian carp from making their way into Lake Michigan. The canal connects Mississippi River tributaries to the Great Lakes.
Illinois is leading the charge against the measure to close the locks, citing that closure of the locks would have a negative economic impact. The White House council on Environmental Quality has sided with Illinois, creating criticism from some that Obama's administration is unfairly taking up with his home state.
Indiana has also been a stalwart opponent of the measure to close the locks.
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed, refusing to close the locks leading to Lake Michigan. Michigan has since renewed their motion.
In their brief to the Supreme Court, the Office of the Indiana Attorney General says that "Indiana industries use the Great Lakes and connected canal systems to ship hundreds of thousands of tons of cargo every year." The canals to the Mississippi River across Illinois are vital to the steel mills of northwest Indiana. The letter to the court also noted the importance of the canals to agriculture, petroleum refining and manufacturing.
However, the Indiana Attorney General also made it clear that Indiana has a vested interest in protecting the Great Lakes ecosystem. As the southernmost portion of the Great Lakes, the Indiana shoreline is an important spawning location for perch, trout and salmon. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources currently spends $1 million a year stocking Lake Michigan with fish.
Indiana therefore has multiple interests at stake, the protection of the Great Lakes ecosystem, and protection of the Ports of Indiana.
The Alliance for the Great Lakes, Great Lakes United and a number of other environmental groups have teamed up, saying that the economic effect felt from lock closure would be much less than what some are projecting. From the Great Lakes United website: "Most of the cargo shipped on the Chicago Waterway System moves through the Lockport Lock. That lock would not be closed as part of the plan on keeping Asian carp from invading Lake Michigan."
The White House Council on Environmental Quality plans to look at the economic effects in more detail.
A plan for control
Nalbone says that closing the locks would only be a temporary option and one of many techniques used to control the carp. She points to the "Asian Carp Control Strategy Framework" as the best way to combat carp.
The framework plan would be a continuously updated document shared amongst agencies in the fight to keep the fish from the Great Lakes. The list of agencies within the jurisdiction is lengthy and includes many state and federal agencies. The 40 plus page plan is available to read online.
"The framework needs to be implemented as soon as possible," says Nalbone, "It contains long and short term solutions to the problem. While we are supportive of lock closure, it is not a permanent solution."
Other measures in the plan to ensure that Asian carp don't ultimately populate the Great Lakes include poisoning, netting, electric barriers and sonic waves to deter the fish. Using pheromones to attract or repel the fish and finding a chemical that will only kill Asian carp are also being discussed.
"We also need a higher level of detail in the framework," says Nalbone.
While Michigan and other groups have fought for temporary lock closure to try to slow the prolific carp, in a letter to the White House, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels points to the fact that "even when closed, fish may swim through the lock."
The framework acknowledges that it may be possible for fish to get through a closed lock. According to the authors, lock closure would impede carp migration but not be completely effective.
It seems that no barrier is completely effective. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has installed multiple electrical barriers to curtail the carp. Fish will not willingly pass the barrier because it causes discomfort. However, the electric barriers are not operational at times because of maintenance and as evidenced by DNA testing, there are many spots in the canal system where Asian carp have gotten past them.
Significant DNA testing in the Chicago area locks has been done by David Lodge, a professor at Notre Dame. Lodge, along with groups like the Alliance for the Great Lakes and Great Lakes United, feel that the Great Lakes basin and the Mississippi River basin should be permanently ecologically separated. This would ensure that Asian carp and many other invasive species would not be able to traverse from one waterway to another, causing harmful biological contamination.
The one thing that all parties seem to agree on is that Asian carp's introduction to the Great Lakes would be a devastating coup in the food chain of the lakes and disrupt the balance of an ecosystem that generates nearly $7 billion a year in sport fishing.
In his letter to the White House, Gov. Daniels has pledged Indiana's commitment to the issue, "Indiana remains firmly committed to preventing the establishment of Asian carp in Lake Michigan." Daniels points to the framework as the best way to keep Asian carp from harming the lakes, but continues to oppose lock closure.
When asked for additional comment, Governor Daniels' representative Jane Jankowski said the governor's office had no statement at this time.
The framework plan references the Mississippi River basin, whose sport fishing industry was devastated by Asian carp, as an example of what could happen in the Great Lakes, "In just a few short years following introduction of Asian carp, many commercial fishing locations have been abandoned, as native fish have nearly disappeared from the catch, replaced by Asian carp."
The fish are also a threat to the $16 billion a year recreational boating industry. When disturbed the carp can jump 8-10 feet in the air. There have been numerous reports of boaters injured by the fish; visit http://youtube.com and type in "Asian carp" to see the magnitude of their infestation in the Illinois River. One third of all registered boats in the United States are within the eight Great Lakes states
According to a lead scientist on the effort, David Lodge, the appearance of Asian carp in the Great Lakes is not a foregone conclusion but "while we're all talking the fish are swimming."
To learn more about the issue of Asian carp and other invasive species in the Great Lakes visit the Alliance for the Great Lakes website http://www.greatlakes.org or http://www.glu.org for the Great Lakes United website. Supreme Court filings and the Asian Carp Control Strategy Framework can be found at http://www.stopasiancarp.com.