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Published: Friday, 7/8/2011

Lake Erie workers ask feds to bar Asian carp

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

PORT CLINTON -- The message from federal officials was clear: No Asian carp are known to have passed through the electric barriers designed to keep the invasive species out of the Great Lakes.

The message from those who make their living from Lake Erie and work to protect the natural resource was clear too: Shut the door now between the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan watersheds near Chicago so the Asian carp cannot invade the lake.

"We don't have a generation to study this. We don't have that kind of time," Rick Unger, president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, told state and federal officials at a meeting of the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee in Port Clinton Thursday. "... We can't afford to study this thing. The only reasonable answer is the permanent separation of the Chicago shipping channel."

Two species of Asian carp -- voracious eaters of plankton that biologists believe could starve out the fish that populate the Great Lakes -- escaped Arkansas fish hatcheries in 1993 and have been migrating northward for nearly two decades.

Among those in attendance at the committee's quarterly meeting was John Goss, who was appointed Asian carp czar by President Obama last September. While he and others touted what has been done to stop the fish, those who work to protect the lake and those close to the region's $7 billion a year fishing industry are clearly impatient.

"Ohio stands to lose a lot if Asian carp get into Lake Erie or even the Ohio River basin," said Kristy Meyer, director of agricultural and clean water programs at the Ohio Environmental Council. "I suspect 40 years is a bit long when we know the only real solution is a separation of the two basins."

Those comments followed presentations by officials from a variety of agencies involved in the Asian carp effort, including Brig. Gen. John W. Peabody, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Great Lakes and Ohio River Division.

General Peabody said barrier systems, including a set of three electrical barriers southwest of Chicago, are the Corps' primary tool to stop the movement of the Asian carp at this time. Long-term, permanent solutions, he said, will take "a generation or two to put into place" once studies are completed.

"It is clear that we have the Asian carp threat contained below the fish barrier," he said.

"All of the experts believe we are in a good place. We're not resting on our laurels; we're going to continue to attack this issue aggressively."

Ray Petering, the state's fish chief, said after the meeting that it's frustrating for Ohioans and for the Ohio Division of Wildlife that the most direct path to Lake Erie remains open.

"Those of us who live in Ohio and value Lake Erie so much really would like to see something done in Chicago, be it temporary or permanent, because we fear it as an entryway," he said. "Our sense is every day that goes by is another day that those fish can get into Lake Erie, and now we're talking about 2015 for the study to be done."

Ms. Meyer and John Stark of the Nature Conservancy expressed concern that the invasive carp are likely to penetrate the area from the Eagle Marsh area near Fort Wayne, Ind., where a chain link fence was installed last year to block the carp's passage.

"It seems to me our most direct threat for Lake Erie is through the Eagle Marsh area," Mr. Stark said. "I know we have a temporary barrier there, but it appears with the right flood situation it could bypass that."

Ms. Meyer said the same.

"The [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] is expecting record floods again this year so it is a big concern for us," she said.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-724-6129.



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