Sandusky, Ohio — For Rick Unger, the recent discovery of genetic material from Asian carp in Lake Erie is just one more reason to close down the link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River in Chicago.
Unger, president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association and a long-time proponent for shutting down the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, said the discovery should serve as a wakeup call to the federal government to close the link.
“We cannot allow our lake to be destroyed while we sit and study it to death,” said Unger, who runs a charter boat service on Lake Erie. “We need action now.”
The discovery of Asian carp DNA in six Lake Erie water samples, originally collected last August, was an alarming development, confirmed by both Michigan and Ohio on July 13. Four of the positive samples were collected in Ohio’s Sandusky Bay and were that of bighead carp. The other two samples tested positive for silver carp and were collected on the north side of Maumee Bay, in Michigan waters.
That came only a day after a study was released by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, concluding that Lake Erie would be “attractive and favorable” for bighead and silver carp, concurring with previous studies conducted in the United States.
While the DNA alone is not enough for scientists to confirm the presence of an established population of the carp, it’s an unnerving development considering one of the findings in the aforementioned study, entitled “Binational Ecological Risk Assessment of Bigheaded Carps for the
Great Lakes Basin,” concluded that as few as 10 females and 10 or fewer males could be all that’s needed for the fish to begin reproducing in any of the Great Lakes.
And scientists have said that of the Great Lakes, Erie could be most damaged by an invasion of Asian carp.
“It is reason for concern, and reason for additional actions,” said Rich Carter, executive fish management and research administrator for the Ohio DNR. Carter floated the possibility that the DNA was present via bird feces or that someone could have cleaned the fish and dumped the carcasses down a storm sewer, delivering the DNA to Lake Erie.
But Chris Jerde, a professor from the University of Notre Dame, which developed the biological markers for the DNA test a few years ago, called such wishful thinking “implausible” and said that, very likely, Asian carp have already reached the Great Lakes. He noted that three bighead carp were pulled out of Lake Erie about a decade ago.
“We may be dealing with individual (Asian carp) that are swimming around Lake Erie,” said Jerde, who added that he thought it was not too late to stop the fish from establishing themselves in Lake Erie. “We’re talking about the leading edge of the invasion. … I feel for the managers because they’re stuck in a really tough spot. They are forced to deal with a population that is extremely tough to catch.”
The day the states announced the discovery of the DNA, they sent out electrofishing boats to both sites in search of the carp, but found none.
Carter said both states are working together to confront the problem.
“We have been talking with Michigan to develop a path forward,” Carter said. “We will have additional activities as soon as we can.”
The six samples were among 417 collected from Lake Erie last August.
Asked why it took nearly a year for the test results to come back, Carter noted that there are only a few labs set up to test for Asian carp, and that there was a backlog because of the heavy sampling that’s been taking place in the Chicago area.
While there’s no telling the origin of the Asian carp DNA, the source of the problem is clear to Unger, who wants to shut down the canal in Chicago.
“That’s the primary solution,” Unger said. “We know that’s a solution.”
In May, Congress ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete its Great Lakes Mississippi River Interbasin Study, which will assess options for keeping the fish out of the Great Lakes, by late 2013.
That’s an improvement, since the Corps had said the study wouldn’t be completed until 2015, according to Tim Eder, president of the Great Lakes Commission, an interstate agency based in Ann Arbor that released its own plan for separating the two water basins in January.
Eder was careful to point out that the GLC is not seeking to shut down the canal, which is not only an important shipping canal but part of Chicago’s flood-control system.
“We believe (we can prevent carp from advancing) while maintaining commercial transportation,” Eder said. “We don’t want to close down the movement of goods.”
Eder said the state of Illinois has been receptive to the GLC’s ideas.
The state had opposed previous calls to close down the canal, a fight that the state won after it reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
So, until a permanent solution can be implemented, an electric barrier at the canal will perhaps be enough to keep the fish from getting into Lake Michigan. The state of Illinois also has ramped up its effort to search for fish in the canal.
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Eder said. “That’s the reality and frustrating part for us and everybody. We hope it’s not too late. We don’t think it will be. Illinois is making extraordinary efforts to monitor and keep fish out of the system. We hope they will continue to be successful.”