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Published: Friday, 1/22/2010

It's not too late to keep voracious fish out of Great Lakes

DETROIT - For those who are worried about the Great Lakes fishing industry being destroyed by an invasion of giant Asian carp, Tuesday was a perfectly horrible day.

First of all, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to issue an injunction closing two navigation locks in Illinois that separate carp-infested waters of the Mississippi River basin from Lake Michigan.

Last month, after carp DNA had been detected fewer less than eight miles from the lakes, Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox filed a lawsuit seeking to close the locks immediately. The suit was opposed by Illinois, which complained that closing the locks could cost Chicago and the barge industry millions. President Obama is from Illinois; his administration also opposed the closing, and they prevailed - at least for now.

Then, within hours of the high court's decision, came more bad news: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that Asian carp DNA samples had been found in water samples near the Chicago shoreline of Lake Michigan.

Few things could be worse than a permanent infestation of giant Asian carp. "If they get in, the Asian carp could destroy the Great Lakes," Mr. Cox said.

Once established, the voracious Asian carp tend swiftly to drive out other fish by consuming the entire food supply. One species, the bighead carp, can easily get up to four feet long and 100 pounds.

They consume a fifth of their weight in plankton every day. In some carp-infested places on the Mississippi River, tests have found that as much as 97 percent of the total weight of the local fish population is accounted for by the carp, which are also spectacularly ugly.

Were that to happen in the Great Lakes, it would play havoc or worse with the $7 billion commercial and sport fishing industries.

This plague started in the 1970s, when Arkansas fish farmers imported the carp, evidently as a possible food fish. (They are edible, if not tasty.) But during a flood, some got into the Mississippi River.

They have been working their way north for years. The authorities knew this, but did little to stop it. An electric barrier was constructed near Chicago, but was never turned on at full strength.

Does evidence that at least some carp have been in Lake Michigan mean it is too late? Maybe not. Charlie Woodley, deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said it would take several hundred fish to reach a critical mass and form a stable breeding population. That may not have happened yet.

After the Supreme Court decision, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm asked the Obama Administration to convene a White House summit on the carp crisis.

Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, sent letters to Ms. Granholm and other Great Lakes governors, agreeing to meet with them in the first week of February to discuss what steps they could take to control the carp.

Meanwhile, the Corps of Engineers plans to use nets and electricity to try to kill carp in the area near Calumet Harbor where their DNA has been detected. But all such efforts are doomed to failure unless there is concentrated, long-term political will to succeed.

Last week, Cameron Davis, a senior adviser to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, told lawmakers in Lansing that it had been clear for years that the carp were coming, but nobody was willing to do anything until the last minute. The next few weeks may determine whether this time, our tardy response turns out to have been too little, too late.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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