Archive for the ‘Asian carp’ Category

Of the White House, Asian carp, and leadership

March 14, 2012

It’s been two weeks since what I think of as “the White House meetings,” when Great Lakes advocates sat down with senior White House officials for two discussions as part of Great Lakes Days in Washington D.C. , Now that the dust has settled, I wanted to share a few thoughts.

First, the White House is COOL! It’s not amazingly ornate or solemn or beautiful; it’s a working space, a little on the small side. But when you walk in you’re hit with this sense of import and energy and focus. Huge decisions get made there by serious people, and whether you agree with them or not, it’s a pretty intoxicating place to be.

It was hard not to be intimidated sitting in the Roosevelt Room across from Administration officials during the White House meeting Monday. I’m proud to say that our merry band of activists was focused, thoughtful, and completely professional — until after the meeting ended. Then everybody started talking at once and tried to get pictures of everybody else in front of the portrait of Teddy on this horse, or FDR, or the Nobel Peace Prize (yeah, that’s hanging on the wall).

If you want a good summary of that meeting and the larger one on Wednesday in the auditorium of the Old Executive Office Building, a good place to go is Joel Brammeier’s blog.  He walks through the issues — funding, nutrients, Asian carp, invasive species, etc. — one at a time and reports on the main discussion points.

First Impression: Obama Admin. Committed to the Great Lakes

I wanted to write about two impressions I took away. First, the Obama Administration truly is committed to the Great Lakes. That commitment, of course, is reflected in the Great Lakes funding budget numbers this and previous years, and we got a pretty good idea of the political capital the Administration had to spend to keep that funding intact.

But it really came through on a personal level in those meetings. Top officials from throughout the Administration, like Commerce Secretary John Bryson not only showed up and made a few comments — they really knew the Great Lakes. I’ll never forget Pete Rouse, President Obama’s special advisor, dropping in to address 120 Great Lakes leaders Wednesday afternoon. Without notes or pause, he spoke for 15 minutes about Great Lakes problems and initiatives, including Lake Erie, Asian carp, funding…. This guy has maybe a thousand issues to keep up with every day, and he knew the Great Lakes stuff cold. That says a lot about this Administration’s priorities at the highest level.

Second Impression: Asian Carp Blind Spot

My second impression is not as positive. When it comes to Asian carp, the Administration still has a blind spot. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, it’s not exerting the kind of leadership from the top that the Lakes need. And when I say from the top, I mean someone at a level who can change the parameters of the debate and move the Army Corps of Engineers.

I don’t know if it’s an overabundance of caution, or an urge to get everybody on the same page before moving forward, but the bold leadership we need here is lacking in critical ways.

To be fair, the Administration has moved quickly and forcefully when it comes to short-term measures to keep the invasive carp out of Lake Michigan, and to the extent that there is not yet a breeding population of Asian carp in the Chicago canals or the lake, those measures have been successful, as Cam Davis pointed out at the briefing. But we know those short-term measures aren’t perfect — witness the discovery of Asian carp eDNA in the canals and at the edge of the lake and the capture of a live silver carp in Lake Calumet. We also know the risk grows every day. That’s why a permanent solution is so important.

Bold Vision Needed on Asian Carp

What’s needed is a vision for that permanent solution and a plan to get there. The conservation community has been pushing for over two years for permanent physical barriers to separate Lake Michigan from the carp-infested rivers in the Mississippi River basin, and the Great Lakes Commission and Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Cities Initiative have just finished a study showing how and where such barriers could be built. The reaction from the Administration? No commitments, they say; let’s wait until 2015 for the results of a study by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The White House meetings changed little of that. Pete Rouse said that the Corps would speed up its study but provided no specifics – echoing a letter from Jo Ellen Darcy to concerned U.S. Senators promising to try to accelerate the study. That’s something, but not a lot; there’s no specific date of completion or commitment to study hydrologic separation and not half-measures that won’t protect the lakes from Asian carp. (And I’d like to recognize that the staff of the Corps has been much more transparent in their study timelines and tasks, something we appreciate even if it doesn’t resolve our central concerns.) Certainly there was no bold vision for how to address the crisis.

President & Candidates Must Reframe the Debate on Asian Carp

What we need is to change the framing of the debate. With one sentence, the President could change the conversation from whether there should be permanent physical barriers built in the canals to where, when and how such barriers should be built. More than anything else, that would create the momentum we need to get to an effective permanent barrier quickly, before the carp invade the lakes.

The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition has called on the President and all the candidates for the presidency in 2012 to make the commitment to hydrologically separate the Mississippi and Great Lakes basins.

The President and the Administration have exercised bold leadership on so many Great Lakes issues. It’s time they did so on this one, too.

Next post: toxic algal blooms and what we should be doing about them.


Great Lakes Votes Matter in Presidential Race

February 13, 2012

‘Tis the season…..Not that season. The political season, and more specifically, that period when, every four years, the national political parties are particularly attentive to the Midwest. In case you’ve been living deep underground, shielded from all radio waves, yes, it’s a presidential election year.

This year our states seem to be hearing less than one might expect  from the White House aspirants—Obama, Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul. But that’s about to change. Now that the Michigan Republican primary is getting closer (February 28) and the Ohio primaries is close behind (March 6), the candidates will be turning their attention to our region. Yet their interest goes far beyond the primary.

You might think that every region of the country believes it’s “special” when it comes to presidential elections; after all, everybody votes. But it turns out that some votes are more important than others. Here’s why.

What do Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin all have in common? Yes, they’re Great Lakes states. But it also happens that they are expected to be presidential election swing states – states that could go to either the Republicans or the Democrats. Which means that the presidential candidates and their parties have to campaign in those states, and campaign hard, all the way through the November election.

Great Lakes Swing States

If you look at the political map, you’ll see that the Great Lakes region has the highest concentration of swing states of any region in the country. And these states are big; they hold lots of electoral votes.

Which is why people who vote in those states have more clout that people who vote in, say, California (a safe Democratic state) or Idaho (a safe Republican one). Voters in swing states like ours can swing their state one direction or the other, and maybe take the entire presidential election with them.

Here’s why swing states are so important: what people care about in those states becomes what the candidates care about. And we know two issues of great importance to those voters: Great Lakes restoration and Asian carp.

Voters Support Keeping the Great Lakes Healthy

The  Great  Lakes are not just the dominant natural feature the ties the region together; they are the basis of the region’s economy and quality of life. They are our competitive advantage. Voters recognize that and they strongly support candidates who want to keep the lakes healthy. That fact is reflected in poll after poll, in frequent editorials, and in the strong support that Great Lakes restoration receives from leaders from both parties.

Likewise, people in those states (particularly in Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin) see Asian carp as a huge threat to the Great Lakes, and they want the federal government to act to stop the invasive fish. Editorials throughout those states have raised the alarm and castigated the Army Corps of Engineers for moving too slowly.  Just last week, a Michigan EPIC/MRA poll found the following:

  • 6-in-10 Michigan voters favor erecting barriers in Chicago Canals to prevent Asian Carp from entering Lake Michigan
  • More than 7-in-10 know “a lot” or “some” about Asian Carp issue
  • Nearly 3-in-4 are very concerned about Asian Carp entering Lake Michigan

Great Lakes Pledge for Presidential Candidates

The presidential candidates can’t afford to be weak on Great Lakes issues or Asian carp. To help them make a meaningful commitment, the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition has provided a special service. We’ve  drafted a Great Lakes pledge, and we’re asking each candidate to sign it. Here are the concrete commitments the candidates need to make:

“I will maintain historic funding levels and, where appropriate, increase Great Lakes restoration funding over existing levels in my annual budgets for the priorities outlined in the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and for future protections of the Great Lakes, such as fewer beach closures and sewer overflows, more clean up of toxic sediments, more restoration of wetlands, and greater prevention of new invasive species; and

“I support a permanent solution to the threat of Asian Carp and other aquatic invasive species entering the Great Lakes.   I will order the Army Corps of Engineers to take all necessary measures to construct a permanent barrier to hydrologically separate the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes basin at Chicago. Those measures include completion of a study by December 31, 2013, to determine the best means of hydrological separation; interim actions to prevent the Asian carp from establishing breeding populations in Lake Michigan until the construction of the permanent barrier is completed; the inclusion of the necessary funds for those measures in my budget proposals to Congress; and the development and implementation of a long-term financing strategy to construct and operate the permanent barrier.”

These commitments are concrete for a reason. Voters can tell that a candidate is serious if he signs the pledge. If he won’t sign, then you know he’s waffling on the Great Lakes.

Great Lakes: The Year In Review

December 15, 2011

Between Letterman and Colbert, it’s pretty daunting to put together any sort of year-end Top 10 list, especially for something as esoteric as Great Lakes policy. But an awful lot has happened this year and I thought I’d take a shot.

So without any (intentional) irony or comedy, here’s my list of the top 10 developments (good and bad) in Great Lakes policy for 2011 – plus a bonus entry at the end! And to add to the excitement, I’ve tried to put these in order of significance and concluded with a final grade for 2011. Debate on the entries, the order and the grade is welcome. (Drum roll, please):

    1. Great Lakes restoration funding: Congress came through at $300 million for FY 11 in funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. That’s significantly less than the baseline set by the Obama Administration in 2009, but still quite robust, especially considering the budget axes being wielded on both sides of the aisle.Great Lakes restoration funding continues to be the exception to the partisan warfare

      that has plagued this Congress, and we sure hope that continues. GLRI funding has resulted in over 900 restoration projects over the past two years with more projects in the pipeline.

    2. Algal blooms break out in Great Lakes: 2011 was the “year of the algal bloom” in the Great Lakes. Lake Erie suffered the worst toxic algal bloom in recorded history last summer. The algae extended miles along the shoreline and miles out into the water, in places over 6 inches thick. It shut down beaches and fishing and caused respiratory problems for charter boat captains trying to cross the blooms into clearer waters.Algae (some toxic) also broke out in blooms in other lakes, including Huron’s Saginaw Bay and the eastern shore of Lake Michigan up to Sleeping Bear Dunes.

      As described in NWF’s report, Feast and Famine in the Great Lakes, these blooms are caused by excessive nutrients entering the watershed and exacerbated by invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels.

      So far, policy solutions have lagged far behind the problem. Although Ohio has a special task force devoted to the crisis, the state does not have the tools or the funds to stop the nutrient additions to the lake. And the best federal tool – a new Farm Bill – is months, if not years, from completion.

    3. Asian Carp Delays: This year we saw continued delays by the Army Corps of Engineers and the courts in taking action toward a permanent barrier to stop Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan. The Corps insists it can’t even finish its feasibility study until 2015.A federal appeals court, while recognizing the importance of stopping the carp from reaching the Great Lakes, refused to order the Corps to speed the study,  and thus far Congressional efforts to do the same have been stymied.Under the Corps’ schedule for completing the study, the carp are likely to colonize the lake and the Corps study will be an exercise in futility. Sampling shows that carp DNA continue to be found near the lake, indicating that at least isolated fish have swum past the electric cable designed to keep them at bay.

      Meanwhile, the Great Lakes Commission and the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Cities Initiative are finalizing their own study on how to separate Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River and expect to release it in January – a full three years before the Corps. THAT’S how you do it!

    4. States step up on the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact: New York hit a home run and Ohio barely escaped striking out on the Great Lakes compact this year. New York passed a strong law last summerthat requires anyone withdrawing more than 100,000 gallons of water per day to get approval and apply water conservation measures.Meanwhile, Ohio’s legislature passed a terrible bill that would have allowed almost unlimited withdrawals with no oversight (the thresholds set before regulation kicked in were so high that the legislature expected no water user ever to be regulated). Although initially inclined to sign the bill, pressure from within Ohio and from other Great Lakes states convinced Governor Kasich to issue a much needed veto.

      For a more comprehensive report on how all the states are doing, check out NWF’s report, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.

    5. EPA issues new draft permit for ballast discharges into Great Lakes: In November, the EPA issued the draft of a new Vessel General Permit that for the first time would require ships to install treatment technology to clean their ballast water.  That’s the good news.The bad news is that the required technology won’t consistently stop new invasions. The ships would have to meet the International Maritime Organization (“IMO”) standard, which allows ships to continue to discharge invasive organisms at low concentrations into the Great Lakes.But that’s not good enough.Unlike other pollution, invasive species organisms are pollution that reproduce – they multiply. So low concentrations initially can easily become high concentrations over time – which is exactly what happened with zebra mussels.

      Fortunately, the draft EPA rule allows states to enact tougher rules and laws, which is exactly what New York and Michigan have done. Those states’ laws – particularly New York’s, which applies to every vessel entering the Great Lakes – provide far better protections than the EPA’s proposed rule.

      Now the challenge is keeping Congress from invalidating the state laws and establishing the too-weak IMO standard as a legal ceiling – even if it’s clear that the standard doesn’t work. The House has already passed a harmful bill; it’s now up to the Senate to stop it.

    6. Michigan Governor vetoes bill that would have damaged Great Lakes protections: In November, Governor Rick Snyder vetoed his first bill ever: legislation that would have prevented Michigan agencies from issuing any rules or permits that are more restrictive than federal minimums.Without the veto, Michigan would have been unable to reissue its precedent-setting permit to restrict ballast water discharges of invasive species, or to improve its water quality standard for phosphorus, the primary cause of the lakes’ massive and growing algae blooms. The veto was a rare occasion of public disagreement between the Governor and the legislature, making it an even stronger indicator of the Governor’s commitment to the Great Lakes.
    7. Ohio Supreme Court Restores Public’s Rights to Lake Erie: The Ohio Supreme Court gave the people of Ohio a surprising legal victory on the public’s right to access and use the shoreline of Lake Erie.  Two lower court rulings had shrunk the public’s ownership of and access to the Lake Erie coast, essentially giving away this precious resource to private landowners.The Ohio Supreme Court reversed the lower court decisions, returning ownership to the public. The Court’s opinion is not without ambiguities, and the case now goes back to the lower courts for final disposition, where the parties will continue to litigate the case.
    8. EPA is issuing mercury reduction rules for power plants: EPA on December 16 is scheduled to finalize its rules for reducing mercury emissions for power plants, the leading source of mercury in the Great Lakes and inland lakes and streams. All of the Great Lakes states have statewide fish consumptions advisories warning people to restrict or avoid entirely their consumption of certain fish because of mercury contamination. The U.S. House has passed bills to attempt to roll back the EPA protections,  but those bills are unlikely to go anywhere in the Senate.Michigan Out-Of-Doors former TV host Bob Garner led a Tele-Town Hall on the mercury rule this month attended by 14,000 hunters and anglers. As Bob said, “We can’t fillet our way out” of mercury in fish.
    9. Michigan court opens the door to sulfide mining: In November, a Michigan Circuit Court allowed a highly damaging mine to go forward in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula despite overwhelming evidence that the mine would cause acid mine drainage in blue-water trout streams, had a high risk of collapsing and draining those streams, would destroy a place of tribal worship, and violated Michigan’s new mining law in dozens of significant ways.The court decision, which is being appealed, upheld a deeply flawed Michigan DEQ decision and set a potentially devastating precedent for protections of the U.P.’s water, land, recreation and tourism. Various companies are now exploring over a dozen of other potential mining sites in the region and the state has permitted a mining processing center in the U.P., drawing additional mining to the region.
    10. Sewer system funding: This is always one of the under-the-radar stories about the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes states received $549 million to modernize and repair their sewers in FY 11– a top priority for stopping the billions of gallons of raw sewage spilled into the lakes. The Great Lakes states’ funding comes through a national program, the State Revolving Loan Fund of the Clean Water Act, as part of a formula (about one-third of the national total). This funding was cut in FY 11 by 27% and may decline even more in FY 12, even though the need is far greater.

      In the immortal words of This is Spinal Tap, “And this one goes to eleven…”

    11. Seventeen Attorneys General call for action to close the invasive species superhighway: Led by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, seventeen of the nation’s Attorneys General sent a letter to Congress calling for passage of a law to speed the Army Corps of Engineers study on closing the Chicago canal system to invasive species and then to implement the study rapidly.This letter is significant because it indicates a growing concern across the country – not just in the Great Lakes — about the passage of invasive species through the canals in both directions. Most of the attention so far has been on the potential for Asian carp to swim through the canals to Lake Michigan; but there’s at least as much danger for invasive species in Lake Michigan to travel through the canals to invade the Mississippi River and the rest of the nation. That’s already happened with zebra mussels, which began in the Great Lakes and now plague 31 states from Massachusetts to California.  With his growing national coalition of Attorneys General, the pressure on Congress and the Corps to act has increased.

For those of you keeping score, that’s seven positive developments, three negative ones, and one that’s more or less neutral (the EPA’s ballast water permit).

Although this tally is good for the Great Lakes, I’d give 2011 an overall grade of no more than a C+. Some of the good stuff was really stopping policies from getting worse (e.g., the vetoes); and the bad stuff is really bad (massive algal blooms, Asian carp).

Let’s celebrate the 2011 victories for the lakes, and then get ready for 2012. I have a feeling we’re in for quite a year.

The Chicago Canal Problem Goes National

September 29, 2011

This week may turn out to be a watershed moment (that’s a very intentional pun) for stopping the movement of invasive species through the Chicago canals.

On Monday, the attorneys general of seventeen states — from West Virginia to Arizona, from Louisiana to Wyoming — called on Congress to order the Army Corps of Engineers to take rapid action and install a barrier in the Chicago canal system that will permanently and hydrologically separate Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River basin (read the attorney generals’ letter to the chairs of key congressional committees (pdf).

This is the first time that top officials from states outside the Great Lakes region have weighed in on this issue, and it could be a game changer.

So why are they engaging? For them, it’s not about Asian carp. It’s about the Great Lakes sending invasive species through the Chicago canals out into the vast Mississippi/Missouri/Ohio River system. The Chicago canals threaten the health of their states – economic and ecological – and they’re beginning to fight back.

The best example is the spread of zebra mussels from the Great Lakes through the Chicago canals to the rest of the country. As I’ve posted before, you can see their spread, year by year, in this animated map published by NWF and the U.S. Geological Survey.

That damage has already been done; the zebra mussels have spread through the canals and into the Mississippi River system. What these eleven non-Great Lakes states are worrying about is the next invader to come through. Will it be quagga mussels? Eurasian ruffe? Round gobies? Spiny water fleas? Or something that has yet to invade the Great Lakes?

Kudos to Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette for leading this effort. As bad as Asian carp are for the Great Lakes, he’s made other regions see that Great Lakes invaders could be equally damaging for them.

The Chicago canals are not a one-way street; they’re a highway that carries invasives in both directions. The electric fence currently in the canals will have little effect in stopping many of them.

We need a permanent  physical barrier. The safety of our nation’s waters demands it.

The Door Opens Both Ways

August 8, 2011

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

As if Asian carp weren’t enough of a threat, the Detroit Free Press on Sunday  reported on a new potential invader that might attack the Great Lakes through the Chicago canal system: the snakehead fish, also known as the “Frankenfish.”

If you thought Asian carp were bad, check out this monster:

  • The snakehead uses its large jaw and big teeth to eat other fish – not just algae and microorganisms like the filter-feeding Asian carp.
  • Like the invasive carp, the snakehead breeds like a mosquito and eats like a hog. It lays thousands of eggs in multiple breeding seasons and guards its nests to protect its young. And although not quite as large as the Asian carp (adults are 3 feet in length), the snakehead also is a voracious eater.
  • The snakehead’s big claim to fame, however, is that IT CAN MOVE OVER LAND, from stream to stream! Like a snake, it wiggles along in ditches and can survive several days outside the water. It breathes air! Which means that once it establishes a breeding population, it’s very hard to contain.

The snakehead hasn’t been found in the Mississippi River…yet. But because it has established breeding populations at least one stream tributary to the Mississippi, fish biologists think it will soon reach the Big Muddy. Once there, of course, it’s only  a matter of time until they reach the Chicago canals and then Lake Michigan – unless a permanent barrier is erected first.

So the Chicago canals once again may be the conduit through which Great Lakes destruction can pass. But here’s the irony: the Chicago canal system is a door that swings both ways. The canals may soon bring species that wreak havoc on the Great Lakes; but the canals already have brought incalculable damage to the Mississippi River basin. Those canals have transmitted our very own scourge, zebra mussels, to most of the rest of the country.

You can watch that door swing right here. NWF’s Trilby Becker has worked with USGS to produce two motion maps. In one you can see the spread of Asian carp up the Mississippi , through the Chicago canals, right to the edge of the Great Lakes.  In the other, you’ll see zebra mussels start in the Great Lakes and move through the Chicago canals, down the Mississippi, to most of the rest of the country. And you can read Trilby’s blog about it.

These maps show visually what scientists found in a recent study, Aquatic Invasive Species Risk Assessment for the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (Jerde, Barnes, McNulty, Mahon, Chadderton, and Lodge, 2010): that the Chicago canals pose an equally great risk to the Mississippi River and its tributaries (like the Missouri and Ohio Rivers) as they do to the Great Lakes. The study concluded that 17 species in the Mississippi River pose a high risk to the Great Lakes, and 10 species in the Great Lakes pose an equally high risk to the Mississippi. And that doesn’t count the zebra mussels that have already infested the Mississippi and its tributaries.

So putting an effective, permanent barrier to stop invasives from moving through the Chicago canals is imperative for the Great Lakes. It’s not just Asian carp we need to worry about; there are other monsters like the snakehead out there waiting to devastate our lakes. Electric fences and half measure won’t cut it.

But we also know that this isn’t just a Great Lakes problem. What starts in the Great Lakes won’t stay there, at least without that permanent barrier. As the motion maps make all too clear, the rest of the country needs protection from the Great Lakes, too.

Fixing the Chicago canals is a national problem, and we need a national solution, fast.

Asian Carp Update, Part I: New eDNA Evidence

May 31, 2011

After a long blogging hiatus, I’m jumping back in after being inspired by yesterday’s ESPN episode on Asian carp; what a great piece!

The ESPN Outside the Lines piece went right to where the worst impacts of the carp would be: Lake Erie.  It included interviews of a bunch of charter boat captains, including our longtime partner Rick Unger. The show appears to be a rebroadcast from November of last year.

Except for the ESPN piece, the news coverage on Asian carp has been quiet. That quiet is misleading, because there’s an awful lot happening, too much to put into a single post:

  • the most recent sampling data
  • short-term actions,
  • long-term actions,
  • threats from outside the Chicago canal system, and more.

Today I’ll start with an update on Asian carp sampling data, and cover the other topics in the weeks to come.

If you’ve been following the media (or lack of it), you’d think that all is well: that is, that there is no new evidence of Asian carp above the electric fence. Unfortunately, that’s not true.

The most recent eDNA evidence of Asian carp in the Chicago canal system from the last three months of 2010 documents the presence of Asian carp beyond the barrier on multiple occasions: 7 silver carps hits and 2 bighead carp positives. In addition, 6 samples were positive for silver and bighead carp in the DesPlaines River north and east of the electric fence in the canal. If the Des Plaines floods into the Chicago canals (and with the recent construction of berms and fences between the two waterbodies, it shouldn’t), the flooding would occur above the electric fence. The Corps’ eDNA surveillance map  identifies where the samples were taken.

Click for a full size pdf of the sampling map:

eDNA Results Map

So why isn’t the evidence of Asian carp beyond the barrier all over the news?  We’re looking at 15 Asian carp hits above the electric fence in 3 months. The Asian carp eDNA is a clear indication that the electric fence is not 100 percent effective and that Asian carp are swimming freely in the Chicago canals with an open path the Lake Michigan just a few miles away.

A year ago, far less evidence of Asian carp triggered a crisis and made headlines all around the region, but not this time.

I can think of three reasons the current evidence of Asian carp beyond the electric fence is not getting the press it deserves, none of which makes these findings any less important:

  1. The Asian carp issue is suffering from media fatigue; the media are tired of covering it. Sorry, I don’t buy it. I think the media will cover any part of this issue that seems like a new development (and even some that don’t). Witness the ESPN story yesterday. I think it’s less media fatigue, and more…
  2. The Corps’ release of the samples is so slow that by the time the data are public, they’re no longer news. Even these most recent data cover the period from October-December, 2010. Why can’t the Corps get this information online faster? The agency’s delays make this crisis seem less urgent, when it most certainly is not.
  3. The Chicago shipping industry and many of the government agencies have really downplayed the eDNA results. When the agencies release the most recent monitoring data on Asian carp, they don’t start with the eDNA tests that indicate the presence of the carp. Instead they start with other sampling techniques – netting, commercial fishing, electrofishing – that scientists uniformly agree would not be expected to find Asian carp in the Chicago canal system.  So it’s no surprise that they don’t find the carp through those methods.

    Rarely do the agency reports acknowledge eDNA samples that show the presence of Asian carp, and if they do, it’s usually in a way that minimizes the importance of those samples (so from October to December, they point out that there were 1330 samples processed, and 15 samples, or 1 percent, showed evidence of Asian carp).

    I agree it makes sense to put the positive DNA hits in a larger context to demonstrate that Asian carp do not yet appear to be present in breeding populations in the Chicago Area Waterway System.

    But, you can only put the DNA evidence in context if you first reveal and discuss the fact that the DNA evidence again and again shows that there are Asian carp past the electric fence. And when you put it in that context, the problem is as urgent as ever. The lack of breeding population only means that we actually have time to fix the problem before it’s too late. We still have hope.

That’s it for this week. Next time I’ll talk about short-term actions to prevent Asian carp in the Great Lakes and what we’re seeing there.

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled ….. Invasive Species?

April 11, 2011

Yesterday, the Sunday New York Times printed my letter responding to a guest editorial that actually praised invasions by non-native species. My letter in the times was a shorter version of a longer piece that’s below (thanks to GLU’s Jen Nalbone for some great edits!). Also, check out the other letters that ran in response to the guest editorial.

Here’s my original piece:

For a minute, I thought Hugh Raffles’ New York Times op ed, “Mother Nature’s Melting Pot” was a bit of a satire – perhaps a modern adaptation of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” After all, Raffles compares the anti-immigration fervor with the attempts to stop invasive, “alien” species from colonizing native habitats in the U.S. But as I read, I got the sinking feeling that Rafferty is serious. He argues, human diversity is good; the iconic “melting pot” has made the United States what it is today. He seems to ignore that he’s talking about diversity among a single species, humans. Would he be as positive about welcoming species into the U.S. that eat humans? Or that kill us through disease? Because that’s what harmful invasive species often do to native species. Shall we open our arms, say, to SARS or the Asian flu? After all, those organisms are just yearning to be free.

What Raffles seems to forget is that our society does welcome many invasive species, like ornamental plants and shrubs, soybeans, and housecats. What we try to stop (or once they are here, control or eradicate) are the few non-native species that turn out to be invasive, or harmful to humans and the habitats we rely on.  Just as we use vaccines, screening and antibiotics to stop diseases that hurt us, so do we use similar techniques to stop the bad invasive species.

And there are bad ones – species that can hurt humans, and species that actually reduce the biological diversity in an ecosystem. Living in the Great Lakes, we see evidence of that on a daily basis. One of them is zebra mussels, which coat the bottom of the Great Lakes and many beaches with six-inch thick mats of tiny, sharp shells. Raffles says that zebra mussels have had a significant positive effect on the Great Lakes because they make filter the water, making it clearer and increasing populations of fish and plants. Problem is, that’s just flat out wrong. Due to zebra mussels and their incredible ability to filter out microscopic organisms, there’s no food left in the water column of vast sections of the Great Lakes and fish populations have crashed. A new article in Environmental Science  and Technology this month documents that fish biomass in two Great Lakes has declined by 95% in the past 15 years, primarily due to zebra mussels and their cousins, the invasive quagga mussels. And according to scientists, because zebra and quagga mussels spit out toxic algae as they consume virtually all the rest, they are the primary culprits in causing harmful algae blooms in the Great Lakes – thick pea-green soup that can poison drinking water and lead to botulism outbreaks.

And that’s only one harmful invasive species. How about viral hemmorhagic septicemia (VHS), the Ebola of fish that causes them to bleed out and die? Shall we roll out the welcome mat for that one?

Biology doesn’t say one species is bad and another is good (although I would argue that an invasive species that wipes out all or many of the other species in an ecosystem is biologically bad). But people value some things above others… including our own survival and prosperity. Call me people-ist, but I prefer native species that don’t hurt me or kill me. So no more harmful invasive species, please!

March 1 Dispatch from Washington

March 2, 2011

Like everybody else, I thought that any big news coming out of Washington’s Great Lakes Days this week would be about the Great Lakes restoration budget. And certainly that’s what most of the briefings and conversations are about.

But lost in the budget news are important new developments about (you guessed it) Asian carp. From a brief, low-key presentation to the Great Lakes Commission, we learned that Asian carp are much more likely to reproduce and have much more food to eat in the Great Lakes than scientists previously thought.

That means that if the invasive carp make it to the Great Lakes, they’re likely to spread fast and far and do even more damage than we’d feared.

Here’s what we heard. Dr. Leon Carl, director of the scientists at the Great Lakes/Midwest division of the USGS (that’s the US Geological Service, the science agency charged with doing much of the fisheries research on Asian carp), on Monday told the Commission that scientists had discovered two new problems:

  1. Asian carp larvae learn to swim vertically at younger ages than scientists had previously assumed. What that means is that the larvae don’t need to be suspended as long in turbulent water to survive and thrive…. which means that shorter river segments or even the coastal areas of the Great Lakes themselves can support Asian carp reproduction. That’s very disturbing news. Until now, scientists thought that Asian carp could only breed in a handful of long tributaries to the lakes, which would limit their ability to spread if they did get into the lakes. Now their capacity to breed and spread looks much greater.
  2. Asian carp eat Cladophora, a common algae that grows along much of the Great Lakes shoreline. That’s another stunner. Scientists had believed that there wasn’t enough food in much of the Great Lakes to support the voracious carp. Now it turns out that there’s plenty of food along much of the coastline to support the spread of the invasive fish.

After the briefing, Leon told me that these new findings make him deeply concerned. He’s right.

The likely damage from an Asian carp invasion has just skyrocketed, as has the urgency for taking action. So far, we’re lucky that the monster carp haven’t established breeding populations in the canals or Lake Michigan. But we can’t count on being lucky for much longer.

We need the Corps to construct a permanent barrier, and fast.

Public in Traverse City asks Corps to declare war on Asian carp

January 28, 2011

The Traverse City public meeting on Asian carp I talked about in yesterday’s post was quite an event.  NWF’s Jeff Alexander and Marc Smith were both at the hearing. Check out Jeff Alexander’s blog post and the AP story on the Traverse City hearing.

The crowd was large and frustrated with the delays by the Army Corps of Engineers. As NWF’s Marc Smith said at the meeting, “We just don’t see why it should take five years from start to finish. There’s just a lack of urgency on the part of the Corps.”

One resident said the Corps should battle the carp with same urgency that we’d fight a war.

The Corps may be getting the message; they told the audience at the meeting that they’d be taking some actions right away. But the Corps didn’t promise to speed the completion of the study needed to build a permanent barrier.

Slow Progress on Asian Carp

January 27, 2011

Asian carp news didn’t take a break over the holidays.

The last month has seen an important marshaling of forces against the march of Asian carp toward the Great Lakes. Consider:

• The leading experts in eDNA testing published a paper in a peer-reviewed journal that should finally put to rest any doubt that Asian carp are (or have been) where the eDNA says they are. The paper should add a little starch to the backbone of the Army Corps of Engineers when it comes to them taking action quickly to stop any further invasions by the carp. It should also enable all the federal and state agencies to stand up to the carp-deniers in the Chicago shipping industry.

• Michigan’s new Attorney General Bill Schuette is pursuing an appeal in federal court to force the Army Corps of Engineers to take rapid action on a permanent barrier in the Chicago canals to stop the carp.  Stay tuned as the Seventh Circuit hears the case.

• Frustrated by the slow pace of the Army Corps of Engineers, two independent bodies are doing their own in-depth feasibility study of how and where to erect a permanent barrier to separate Lake Michigan from Asian-carp infested rivers in the Mississippi River Basin. The Great Lakes Commission and the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Cities Initiative will complete the $2 million study by January, 2012. One of the primary purposes of the report is to jumpstart the Corps’ own feasibility study, which the Corps claims will take over five years. That time frame is simply unacceptable. By that time the Great Lakes may be the Great Carp Ponds. The Corps needs to use the completed GLC/GLSLC study to finish its work much faster.

• In October, a group of prestigious scientists from the U.S. and Canada began a rigorous risk assessment to describe the likely impacts that Asian carp will have on the Great Lakes. The risk assessment will hopefully explode the other myths being propagated by some among the Chicago shippers that (a) Asian carp will not travel through the Chicago canals in numbers great enough to achieve breeding populations; and (b) even if they did, the carp would not thrive in the Great Lakes or their tributaries. Although both of these claims are demonstrably false, some continue to make them. I expect that the risk assessment, once completed, will bury them once and for all.

• Leaving the Chicago canals for a moment, citizens all over the region are attending public meetings and calling for the Corps to close the other pathways that Asian carp might take to the lakes. The Corps last month released a preliminary draft of its Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study (GLMRIS). The draft (called “Other Pathways Preliminary Risk Characterization”) identified 18 potential pathways (outside the Chicago area) where the risk of the carp reaching the lakes is “acute,” “high,” or “medium.”

The draft study identified another 13 potential pathways where the risk is described as low. The report identified three particularly worrisome areas:

“One location was singled out as the greatest concern, the Eagle Marsh site in Fort Wayne, IN. Interim and long-term risk reduction measures were deemed necessary to mitigate potentially imminent risk of Asian carp reaching Lake Erie through the aquatic pathway that develops at this location during a significant storm event.

“The Long Lake connection to the Ohio and Erie Canal in Summit County, OH south of Akron, OH, and the Libby Branch of the Swan River large wetlands complex in Itasca and Aitkin County, MN are also identified as High Risk locations for ANS interbasin transfer.”

The report recommends additional study prior to taking action for all the sites except Eagle Marsh. That’s the site where the headwaters of the Maumee River, the largest tributary to Lake Erie, pass within a mile of tributaries to the Wabash River, which already is carp-infested. Concern about flooding that could connect the two streams via Eagle Marsh prompted the Indiana DNR to erect an emergency fence through the marsh.

The Corps is now in the midst of gathering public testimony as part of the NEPA review of the GLMRIS “Other Pathways” study at meetings in 12 cities (today in Traverse City, next week in Cincinnati, and March 8th for meeting in Ann Arbor that was rescheduled due to weather). And wherever the Corps is, so is NWF. Our very own Jeff Alexander has been blogging from the hearings; check out Jeff’s posts.

This is good stuff, but we have lots more marshaling to do. We need to keep the pressure on the Corps to get the study done faster and then to start work on the ground toward a permanent barrier. To speed the Corps’ study we should demand that it use the Great Lakes Commission/Cities Initiative report that will be published in 12 months. Reinventing the wheel is rarely a good idea, and here it would be particularly harmful.

The public meetings are a great way to make our voices heard. Let’s get out there and tell the Corps to get moving.