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Invasive Asian grass carp were imported from China in the 1970s to control plant growth in ponds. Of course, they escaped. Now, they and their more-voracious cousins — bighead and silver carp — threaten native fish in the Great Lakes as they multiply and spread. And still there is not an adequate response from Washington.
Biologists have determined that four grass carp caught by a commercial fisherman in the Sandusky River in 2012 were born there. Alarmingly, this is the first confirmed case of any Asian carp species reproducing in the Great Lakes or their tributaries.
Grass carp overeat vegetation also used by native fish and wildfowl; bighead and silver carp gorge themselves on plankton that native fish otherwise would eat. The Mississippi River is overwhelmed by carp, and the onslaught is headed for the Great Lakes, where an $8 billion a year recreational and commercial fishing industry is threatened.
The invasive fish are reportedly a little more than 20 miles away from entering Lake Michigan. They are held back, for now, by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers electrical barriers in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
Scientists are skeptical whether those barriers can hold over the long term. This week, scientists reported a second positive hit for carp DNA in Lake Michigan.
In July, the Obama Administration announced a $50 million plan to improve the network of electrical and other barriers to contain carp. It isn’t enough.
The ultimate solution is permanent separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River drainage basins by closing the Chicago canal, a human-made superhighway for invasive species. Nature meant for the Mississippi’s watershed to be separate from the Great Lakes. The canal corrupted this division. “If we don’t separate those two basins, anything less will fail,” says Kristy Meyer, managing director of agricultural, health, and clean water programs for the Ohio Environmental Council.
At the same time, Congress needs to fund fully the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which had bipartisan support when President Obama established it in 2009 with an annual budget of $475 million. This year’s spending fell to $285 million because of the budget sequester. House Republicans want to cut the program to $210 million next year.
The Corps of Engineers must wrap up its studies and come up with concrete solutions now to stop the carp. All of Ohio’s and Michigan’s senators signed a letter this week demanding that the Corps hustle to offer anti-carp specifics.
A federal law that aims to prevent the spread of “injurious” species must be updated to identify — and restrict — invasive species before they are imported, not after. Bighead carp weren’t added to the federal register of injurious wildlife until two years ago.
Asian carp endanger the environment and economy of the Great Lakes region. The alternatives are effective containment — or disaster.