Archive for November, 2010

Army Corps: Cracking open the door for Asian carp

November 30, 2010

Last week I attended the “Michigan Asian Carp Prevention Workshop” put on by the state’s Office of the Great Lakes. It was a really solid event with excellent presentations and new information.

The workshop highlighted the significant recent progress on Asian carp, including the:

Unfortunately, even as some progress is being made, the Army Corps of Engineers are opening the door for Asian carp.The Corps seems determined to resist serious consideration of hydrological separation in the Chicago waterway system.

The latest obstacle to shutting the door on Asian carp is the way the Corps is setting up its feasibility study for preventing the movement of Asian carp and other invasive species between the Mississippi River basin and the Great Lakes. Congress passed a law ordering the Corps to conduct that study (called GLMRIS – the Great Lakes Mississippi River – Study). The law (the Water Resources Development Act of 2007, Pub. L. 110-114, §3061(d))  says,

(d) FEASIBILITY STUDY.-The Secretary, in consultation with appropriate Federal, State, local, and nongovernmental entities, shall conduct, at Federal expense, a feasibility study of the range of options and technologies available to prevent the spread of aquatic nuisance species between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Basins through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and other aquatic pathways.(emphasis added)

But the study that Congress ordered is not the study the Corps wants to conduct. In the Great Lakes Mississippi River study plan and in public presentations, the Corps says it will assess the feasibility of measures “that could be applied to prevent or reduce the risk of ANS transfer between Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins.” But “reducing the risk” can be pretty minimal – like doing more electrofishing. It certainly isn’t prevention, and it certainly isn’t what Congress ordered.

When I asked the Corps staff at the workshop why they were not following Congress’s explicit orders (and the law) on the study, the staff said that no mechanism can be 100 percent effective in preventing introductions, so they wanted to “lower expectations.” That’s why they added “or reduce the risk” to the purpose of the study.

That’s a pretty significant lowering of expectations – almost to zero. I asked why they didn’t at least say the study purpose was “prevent to the maximum extent possible.” The Corps said they hadn’t thought of that!

Here’s what’s at stake:

Congress has ordered the Corps to evaluate the feasibility of measures that will actually prevent the introduction of Asian carp into the Great Lakes. That assessment would include economic and social factors as well as ecological ones, and it could be that the Corps concludes that some prevention measures are not feasible, or that some measures are more feasible than others.

But the Corps isn’t even willing to live by those rules. Instead, the Corps wants to assess the feasibility of measures that do NOT prevent the introduction of Asian carp… but only reduce the risk of introduction. Virtually any measure can be said to reduce the risk in some way. So the Corps might be assessing the economic and social costs of doing more electrofishing, or more commercial fishing, or improving the operations of the electric fences – all well and good, but none designed to prevent the introduction of Asian carp into the lakes.

And the Corps plans to unfairly compare “risk reducing” measures and their costs to the costs of measures that really prevent the introduction of carp – like hydrological separation. Which ones do you think the Corps will conclude are more feasible? I can answer that question now; we don’t have to spend millions of dollars and wait 5 years for that bad news.

The Corps should obey the law. And we all should hold them to it. Let’s ask the new Asian carp director, John Goss to do just that. Email him at


News on invasives from the back and front doors

November 3, 2010

This week brings two new reports on invasive species. The first is the October 25 edition of the New Yorker Magazine, where Reporter At Large Ian Frazier travels up the Mississippi, the Illinois, and the DesPlaines  Rivers and then through the Chicago canals – the back door of the Great Lakes – to see firsthand what’s happening with Asian carp. You can read an abstract of his story, but really doesn’t come close to doing justice to his excellent reporting.

From descriptions of the fish to the fisherman, from following the trail of slime the carp leaves to the people who would like to sell them for food, from the Redneck Fishing Tournament to the intricacies of the Chicago canal system, Frazier really captures the people, the waterways, and the fish in impressive fashion. His interview with Notre Dame researcher David Lodge, whose eDNA monitoring sounded the alarm on the carp’s proximity to Lake Michigan almost a year ago, is can’t-miss reading. A quick excerpt here:

“I know you can’t not laugh when you see the silver carp jumping all over the place, but it’s really not funny. It’s a tragic thing, and people are wrong to trivialize it. We should focus on these fish’s potential environmental and economic impact. In the Great Lakes – just as we’re seeing now in South Louisiana – the environment is the economy. Look at how the degrading of Lake Erie in the sixties and seventies contributed to the decline of Detroit and Cleveland and Buffalo. To people who say this is a question of jobs versus the environment, I say it’s not either-or.”

Then there’s a fascinating story addressing the front door of invasive species, the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Northwest Indiana Times reports consternation by the shipping industry that a New York law may force them to stop discharging invasive species-laden ballast water into the Great Lakes.  Steven Fisher, executive director of the American Great Lakes Ports Association, told a business forum in Indiana that ocean-going vessels would stop coming to Burns Harbor because New York prohibits vessels from traveling through New York waters – which they must do to traverse the Seaway — unless they can meet protective discharge standards for their ballast water. This threat comes soon after the Canadian government registered a protest about the same law because of its potential impacts on Canadian ports.

As I posted four months ago, the New York law is designed to do exactly what the shippers and Canada complain of: stop ballast water discharges of invasives ANYWHERE in the Great Lakes. New York understands that what happens in Lake Superior or Lake Michigan or Lake Huron doesn’t stay there; it moves through the system into New York waters. That’s why New York expanded its law to cover any ship travelling through its waters and not just any ship discharging in its ports.

What’s sparked all this concern? The shipping industry finally realizes that the New York law is real, it’s on the books, and the courts have upheld it. So now the shippers are putting on a full court press to reverse the law by other means.

These kind of head-in-the-sand reactions reinforce the image of the shipping industry as the major source of damage to the Great Lakes. If they keep this up, they’ll also be known as job killers, as invasive species are harming the tourism and recreation industries that are the economic anchor to many communities in the region. This view is well articulated by Jennifer Caddick, director of Save the River, in a letter she wrote to New York State Senator Darrel J. Aubertine about his opposition to the New York law.

Here’s the irony: New York hasn’t even begun to enforce this law. The standards are supposed to go into effect in 2012, but New York has not found a way to make sure that ships passing through its waters comply with the law. The Coast Guard has said it won’t enforce the law on New York’s behalf, and the Seaway Authority is not likely to step up because they oppose the law.  And New York does not have the authority to stop ships in the Seaway and board them, so the state can’t determine whether ships have the required treatment technology.

Between the shipping industry’s full court press and New York’s enforcement quandary, we still have a lot of work to do to close the Great Lakes’ front door to invasive species.