Great Lakes Invasion?

I had hoped my first blog post would be different. The idea behind this Great Lakes blog is to give folks an inside view of what’s going on in the Great Lakes policy and political world from folks who are involved in the day to day advocacy for the Great Lakes. Author and NWF media consultant Jeff Alexander will write in-depth news reports, I’ll provide a few posts on hot topics, and other NWF Great Lakes staff and leaders from other organizations will occasionally guest blog. For this first post, I wanted to be upbeat and casual, maybe telling a funny story about people who care about the Great Lakes (involving a Canadian border guard and sunglasses, and you’ve probably heard me tell it before, but I was going to run through it again in case you hadn’t).

Instead, I’ve got to blog about potentially the biggest Great Lakes disaster since zebra mussels invaded, and maybe even worse than that.

Asian Carp - Photo: Fish and Wildlife ServiceOf course, I’m talking about the invasive Asian carp – the bighead and silver carp. Friday and Saturday you might have seen reports in the New York Times and local papers, and heard them on NPR. These carp – huge eating machines that consume up to 40 percent of their considerable weight every day and that make up 95 percent of the biomass of some parts of the Illinois River – appear to have breached the barrier that keeps them out of Lake Michigan. If they get into the Great Lakes, they’ll eat the foundation of the food web, the small plants and animals that all other fish rely on for food. They could turn the Great Lakes into Great Carp Ponds. They’ll devastate the lakes we know. Permanently.

We just found out about this Thursday night (November 19) and then learned more detail from a hastily called government news conference Friday. Bottom line, this wasn’t supposed to happen, at least not so soon. You might remember that two years ago, the Healing Our Waters Coalition and a number of Congressional champions pulled out all the stops to get funding for an electric barrier across the Chicago Sanitary Ship Canal about 20 miles from Lake Michigan. The barrier was built and eventually went on line. There was no evidence of carp near the barrier, so everybody thought it had come on line in time. It looks like everybody was wrong.

What we learned last week is that researchers (led by David Lodge out of Notre Dame) in October discovered bighead Asian carp DNA past the barrier – as close as 3 miles from Lake Michigan, and possibly beyond our last defense. If the DNA means that bighead carp are also present past the barrier – and Dr. Lodge thinks it does – then we have an unprecedented emergency for the Great Lakes. We can’t wait another moment to act.

But that’s not what you would have heard on the news conference held by the government agencies. They acknowledged this could be a dire emergency. But when asked what they were doing to address it, there was dead silence. Eventually somebody said they needed to do more research to see if there are really carp where the DNA said they’d be. Of course, by that time, the lakes are likely to be the unwilling hosts of reproducible invasive carp populations

This is an emergency, people! As my colleague Marc Smith says, this is code red! More research isn’t going to cut it, not by a long shot. We need action immediately to lower the odds of Asian and silver carp getting to Lake Michigan. The options are not pretty, but we have no choice. Here’s what needs to happen:

  • Close all the locks connecting the canal with Lake Michigan, and close them NOW. That should slow the advance of the carp even if it doesn’t stop them entirely.
  • Kill the fish in the areas of the DNA hotpsots (using electroshocking or poison) to see if there are bighead or silver carp where the DNA tests say they are.
  • Do DNA tests in Lake Michigan near the Chicago shoreline. Astoundingly, nobody’s planning to do such tests. We can’t know how bad the problem is if we don’t know how far the carp have spread.

Some of these recommended actions are controversial, and some people (like shippers and some pleasure boaters ) are going to object. But that’s nothing compared to the public outrage that will happen if the agencies could have prevented those huge carp form invading Lake Michigan…. and they didn’t.

As of Tuesday morning, we have heard that the government plan is to use rotenone (a poison) and electroshock to kill the fish at the DNA hotspots to see if carp are there. But this won’t happen until next week, which gives any carp that are present plenty of time to swim into Lake Michigan. So far the Corps has refused to close the locks.

Looking ahead, assuming we can keep the carp out in the short term, we have to put a permanent solution in place: we need to create a hydrologic separation between Lake Michigan and the areas that have the carp. That’s going to mean permanently closing or restructuring locks and canals. Yes, that will cost millions. But that cost is tiny compared to the Billions (with a “B”) of dollars each year that we’ll lose if these huge carp get into the Great Lakes. And this is not some hastily-hatched scheme. The Great Lakes Fishery Trust sponsored a study conducted by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and the Alliance for the Great Lakes that shows how and where Lake Michigan can be separated from waterways with carp (pdf).

Our staff is working to obtain more information on what is being done to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. We will post that information as it becomes available. For now, keep your fingers crossed and hope our government agencies can fulfill their promise to keep these menacing invaders out of the lakes.

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