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Published: Saturday, 2/13/2010

Carp summit lessons

THE so-called carp summit this week in Washington left Michigan leaders dissatisfied and rightly worried about the future of the Great Lakes.

Asian carp, non-native fish imported to clean up algae in Arkansas fish farms, accidentally got into the Mississippi River two decades ago. They have been working their way north ever since.

Last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers revealed that Asian carp DNA had been detected in Lake Michigan, near Chicago. That set off serious alarm bells, as it should have. Both transplanted species of carp, the bighead and the silver, are rapacious eaters that consume so much plankton that they often drive native fish to near-extinction.

That outcome could prove disastrous for the commercial and sport fishing industries. Silver carp also are known for leaping out of the water and colliding with boaters, sometimes doing serious harm.

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox wanted two locks permanently closed that connect the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal with the Great Lakes. But Chicago shipping interests strongly opposed closing the locks, saying it would cost them heavily. President Obama, who is from Illinois, sided with them.

Mr. Cox, a Republican who is running for governor, unfortunately used the occasion for a bit of partisanship, bashing the President for caving in to "the narrow interests of his home state of Illinois." He failed to note that the U.S. Supreme Court also declined to close the locks.

The administration now backs a $78.5 million plan to fight the carp by building new barriers, at least one of them electric. The government also vows to increase efforts to search for and kill any carp already in Lake Michigan.

Experts from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say that the presence of a few specimens in Lake Michigan probably doesn't mean the situation is hopeless; they believe that it would take at least a couple of hundred to form a stable breeding population. As serious as the problem is, the decision not to close the locks was probably inevitable, and may be a disguised blessing.

Relying on a simple, one-step solution is seldom realistic, especially in environmental matters. The price of stopping the carp is apt to be a combination of a variety of strategies, and continued vigilance.

Otherwise, we may have to explain to future generations doomed to eating carp sandwiches that there once were, indeed, other varieties of fish in the lakes.

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