Traverse City, Mich. (AP) – With marauding Asian carp on the
Great Lakes’ doorstep, the federal government has crafted a $78.5
million battle plan that offers no assurance of thwarting an
invasion and doesn’t use the most promising weapon available to
fight it off.
The surest way to prevent the huge, hungry carp from gaining a
foothold in the lakes and threatening their $7 billion fishing
industry is to sever the link between Lake Michigan and the
Mississippi River basin, created by engineers in Chicago more than
a century ago.
The strategy released by the Obama administration earlier this
month agrees only to conduct a long-range study of that idea, which
could take years. The government also refuses to shut down two
navigational locks on Chicago waterways that could provide an easy
pathway for the carp into the lakes, although it promises to
consider opening them less often.
Instead, the plan outlines two dozen other steps, from
strengthening an electric barrier designed to block the carp’s
advance to using nets or poisons to nab fish that make it through.
That’s an expensive gamble that may not keep enough carp out of the
lakes to prevent 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
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 and is fervently opposed by barge
operators who move millions of tons of commodities through the
Chicago locks each year.
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 percent 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
The carp already have 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
“None of us know for certain what their impact would be,”
University of Notre Dame biologist David Lodge told a House
subcommittee. “There’s only one way to find out, and I don’t think
any of us want that.”
Pulled in different directions by the fishing and the barge
industries, and politicians in Illinois and those from the other
Great Lakes states, the Obama administration says the only
realistic approach is to confront the carp on multiple fronts
instead of taking the bolder step of severing Lake Michigan from
the Mississippi basin.
“We cannot fight biology with engineering alone,” Cameron Davis,
the Environmental Protection Agency’s spokesman on the issue, told
the congressional panel.
Yet the federal plan is heavy on technological innovations.
Among them: barriers using sound, strobe lights, and bubble
curtains to repel carp and biological controls to prevent them from
reproducing. They’re promising measures – but still on the drawing
Environmentalists and Great Lakes governors outside of Illinois
who want to close the Chicago locks claim it’s the best short-term
option. But it isn’t a foolproof solution, as young carp might
still be able to slip through the leaky structures. The Chicago
waterways also have other access points to Lake Michigan.
Army Corps of Engineers officials are putting their faith in a
two-tiered electric barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal
about 25 miles from Lake Michigan, to which they will add a third
section this year. It emits pulses to scare off the carp or knock
them unconscious if they don’t turn back. No carp have been found
above the barrier, although biologists have detected their DNA in
numerous spots past it and even within Lake Michigan itself.
“While we’re all talking,” Lodge said, “the fish are
That almost certainly means at least some carp have eluded the
device and reached the lake. The government’s plan aims to keep
their number low enough to prevent them from breeding. The problem
is that no one knows how many carp need to make it into the lake to
establish a foothold that can’t be turned back.
“This is a lot of money to pile into stopgap measures,” said
Phil Moy, a University of Wisconsin Sea Grant researcher. “It may
do some good in the short term, but in the long term it’s not going
to solve the problem of invasive species on both sides of the
divide. Ecological separation has to happen for this to be