Rarely have five days in Chicago affected the Toledo area so much.
The federal government's response last week to the Asian carp crisis ultimately could become more important than any of the political conventions the Windy City has hosted in its storied history: At stake is whether one of North America's most feared invasives will colonize the Great Lakes, thereby imperiling the region's $7 billion fishery.
Lake Erie's western basin, from Monroe to Sandusky, is the warmest, shallowest, and most biologically productive part of the Great Lakes. The Maumee River and Lake Erie's Maumee Bay near Toledo are the top spawning areas, while shoreline cities such as Port Clinton thrive on charter fishing.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimates that the widely popular rod-and-reel sportfishing industry alone has an $800 million impact on the Buckeye State's economy, from bait shop purchases to hotel and restaurant receipts.
Tourism and recreation are seen as a way of helping the Toledo area diversify its sagging economy. But if the Asian carp colonizes the Great Lakes, those hopes could all come crashing down, officials fear.
"This could result in the collapse of the Great Lakes food web," according to Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm. In a letter she sent Wednesday to her state's attorney general, Mike Cox, she described Asian carp as an "imminent and looming threat to Michigan's natural resources and economy."
Jeff Reutter, director of Ohio Sea
Grant and Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory on Gilbraltar Island, has stated on numerous occasions that more fish are caught in Lake Erie than the other four Great Lakes combined - and that the hub of that activity is Lake Erie's western basin.
For five days last week, the government had what it described as a "rapid response team" making the ecological equivalent of football's Hail Mary pass.
Out of desperation, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources took the unusual step of injecting a pesticide into a six-mile stretch of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, a man-made waterway that helps link the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan.
It was a powerful pesticide, intended to kill off all fish that remained within the boundaries of that enclosed canal after biologists and technicians had scooped up as many as they could. In all, tens of thousands of fish were killed.
The canal was drained for maintenance work. It was expected to be refilled and back in normal operation by Friday night.
The operation was in response to a Nov. 17 announcement by one of the Great Lakes region's most highly regarded experts on invasive species, David Lodge of the University of Notre Dame, who said he had found evidence of Asian carp DNA beyond a $9 million electrical barrier that had been fortified to keep them out.
Environmental officials said last week that they also found a single Asian carp in a canal leading to Lake Michigan - the closest one to reach the Great Lakes.
"We're going to keep throwing everything we possibly can at them to keep them out," said Cameron Davis, senior Great Lakes adviser to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson.
Asian carp are aquatic vacuum cleaners. Known to grow more than 4 feet long and weigh more than 85 pounds, they gobble up prized sportfish and the food that supports them while also destroying their habitat and multiplying rapidly.
The bighead carp - one of four species of Asian carp - can consume 40 percent of its body weight in plankton daily. Microscopic plankton are a primary source of food for small fish that others prey upon.
Mark Smith of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office in Ann Arbor said it is imperative that officials do all within their power to address the crisis. His group is one of five that have asked for the Army Corps of Engineers to close the canal between the Mississippi and Lake Michigan.
"This really is an emergency situation in which we have to explore all options," he said. "Why would you play Russian roulette with the Great Lakes?"
Closing the connecting waterway would have severe economic consequences in itself: It would disrupt the movement of tons of iron ore, coal, grain, and other goods, from salt, sugar, and molasses to cement, scrap metal, and petroleum, officials said.
"It could definitely impact day-to-day living," said Lynn Muench, a senior vice president for American Waterways Operators in St. Louis.
The threat is not new. Although some religious groups have imported live Asian carp for years, many of the fish out in the wild now came from or are descendants of those imported by some Arkansas fish hatcheries in the 1980s to eat pond scum.
The carp got loose when the Mississippi River flooded in 1993. They have been swimming upstream toward Chicago the past 17 years.
Ironically, an electrical barrier was already in place in Lockport, Ill., the site of last week's activity.
But that barrier was not intended to repel huge Asian carp. It was built to keep out round gobies, thumb-sized fish that prey on zebra mussels.
The gobies and mussels are from eastern Europe, both brought over in the ballast water of oceanic ships. They are among nearly 190 exotics that have invaded the lakes, mostly since the 1950s.
Asian carp surpassed zebra mussels as a poster child for invasive species years ago because of their size and greater potential for destruction, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They have been a source of anxiety and amusement for those who follow Great Lakes issues.
A TV network once ran footage of a silver Asian carp leaping out of the water and smacking an unsuspecting male boater in a part of his body he least would want to get smacked by an 85-pound fish.
As Tom Skinner, a former Midwest regional director for the federal Environmental Protection Agency once said, people can talk about zebra mussels 'til they're blue in the face. But getting smacked by a leaping carp - a sensation the U.S. Geological Survey equates to getting hit by a thrown bowling ball - now, that's a real eye-opener.
This report includes information from the Associated Press.
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