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Published: Monday, 9/20/2010

Some fear carp worse than spill

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
This 20-pound Asian carp was caught in June near an electric barrier in Lake Calumet, Ill., six miles downstream of Lake Michigan, that is designed to keep the invasive species out of the Great Lakes. This 20-pound Asian carp was caught in June near an electric barrier in Lake Calumet, Ill., six miles downstream of Lake Michigan, that is designed to keep the invasive species out of the Great Lakes.
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Strickland presses U.S. officials

It is, if nothing else, a bit unorthodox to compare an invasive species' potentially devastating behavior to the consequences of a historic petrochemical catastrophe.

But increasingly, Great Lakes officials seem to be running out of patience with the federal government on the Asian carp issue - as if they are collectively trying to tell Uncle Sam it's time to stop foolin' around.

The latest example of that occurred Wednesday, when Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland said he told Obama Administration officials that Asian carp could cause more permanent ecological damage to the Great Lakes than BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill did to the Gulf of Mexico.

Mr. Strickland told reporters afterward that he and others remain committed to getting that sense of urgency across, that their words are not an embellishment of the situation at hand.

He said he told Nancy Sutley, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, to impress upon the administration that the voracious fish poses an urgent threat to the region's $7 billion fishery.

The area with apparently the most at stake is western Lake Erie, the warmest and shallowest part of the Great Lakes and the area with the best spawning grounds.

From Monroe to Sandusky, communities around western Lake Erie represent one of the region's most economically depressed areas. The region is trying to diversity its economic base or, at a minimum, fighting to hang on to what it has.

"It's an ecological disaster that I think is preventable. We ought not to be penny-wise and pound-foolish," Mr. Strickland told reporters about the carp situation.

He was part of a Great Lakes delegation that met in the morning with Ms. Sutley and leaders of several federal agencies at a White House gathering of about 30 officials. Mr. Obama did not attend.

The summit was requested July 8 by Mr. Strickland and Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, who had hoped to meet with the administration on the matter no later than July 19. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm was among the region's officials joining them.

"I compared what was potentially happening to the Great Lakes to what happened to the Gulf coast," Mr. Strickland told reporters. "The Gulf will eventually return to health. I don't think we will ever be able to recover if the Asian carp [colonize the lakes]."

The delegation, minus Illinois, reiterated its call for separating the Lake Michigan and Mississippi River watersheds near Chicago, as well as fortifying barriers in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Two species of Asian carp escaped confinement from Arkansas fish hatcheries in 1993, and at least one appears to have breached a multimillion-dollar set of electrical barriers the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built 20 miles southwest of Chicago to block Asian carp and other exotic species from advancing north beyond the Mississippi River system.

The fish continued to swim upstream for 17 years without the federal government or anyone else halting the species' progress.

Lately, Illinois has resisted calls for separating the series of natural and manmade waterways that connect the Lake Michigan and Mississippi River watersheds, saying that doing so would cost the state jobs in Chicago's boat-tour industry.

Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, a Republican who had been trying to succeed Democrat Granholm as governor until he lost in the August primary, filed a suit against the Corps in July in hopes of gaining a court order for a separation of the water bodies.

Hearings on an injunction that would require stronger temporary measures were held in Chicago last week.

The U.S. Supreme Court previously declined to hear a similar lawsuit Mr. Cox brought against Illinois.

According to Mr. Strickland, the delegation's call for an ecological separation was "crystal clear" to Obama Administration officials attending the summit, with no objections voiced. "If there was opposition to an eventual separation, it was not voiced in the meeting," he said.

But Mr. Strickland said he learned that such a massive engineering project in itself - if it is ever done - probably would not be enough to make the problem go away. The Corps has been asked to see if it is even practical.

Officials at the summit cited as many as 37 pathways for the highly destructive carp, including the ingestion of Asian carp eggs by birds, Mr. Strickland said.

Monitoring is likely to continue "for years, if not decades," he said.

The Obama Administration last week announced the appointment of John Goss, a retired Indiana Department of Natural Resources director, as its first-ever Asian carp czar.

Mr. Goss - most recently executive director of the Indiana Wildlife Federation - will oversee efforts to keep the fish out of the lakes, a move that Mr. Strickland cited as a positive one.

In a prepared statement, the Obama Administration said it has fortified barriers in the Chicago area and is working with a variety of experts on a long-term strategy to ward off the fish.

It said commercial fishing crews have removed 104,000 pounds of Asian carp from the Illinois River, the largest of the connecting waterways, since May.

In addition to Chicago, officials are working in Fort Wayne to keep Asian carp in Indiana's Wabash River from getting into the Maumee River. The two are not directly connected, but share the same floodplain.

The Maumee could be a more direct pathway to western Lake Erie, which spans from Toledo to Sandusky.

Western Lake Erie has the most at stake because it is the warmest and most productive spawning area.

Ohio has 100,000 residents with jobs supported by Lake Erie, Mr. Strickland's office said.

Lake Erie holds only 2 percent of Great Lakes water but 50 percent of Great Lakes fish, according to U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), who joined Mr. Strickland on a conference call with reporters but was not at the Asian carp summit.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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