Posts Tagged ‘invasive species’

Great Lakes Are Down In The Count When It Comes To Invasive Species

April 10, 2012

Saturday opened the first weekend of the baseball season and an excellent article in the New York Times on the government’s weak attempts to hit invasive species out of the park (or at least out of the Great Lakes). I’m afraid that we’ve used up one strike already, and we could easily whiff on the next two pitches.

Here’s why this metaphor is less strained that you’d think.

Strike one was the Coast Guard ballast water rules reported on by the Times. Twenty-two years after zebra mussels colonized the Great Lakes, the Coast Guard finally issues rules designed to keep out invasive species. Those rules are a step in the right direction (they actually require ships to install measures to treat invasive species for the first time – imagine!). But the Coast Guard’s rules are too little, and much too delayed.

The Coast Guard’s weak ballast water rules still allow ships to discharge some invaders in their ballast, and as we all know, it only takes two critters to meet at the right time, and suddenly you have a breeding population. Equally bad, the rules allow some ships to avoid installing any treatment for nine more years –  until 2021. D’ya think the first 20 years would have been enough lead time?

Two more pitches are coming over plate next, and our batters aren’t looking so good. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a draft permit that’s not much better than the Coast Guard rule. The permit is not final, so the agency has the chance to improve it, and many of us have sent in comments (pdf) urging just that–for the EPA to make important improvements to the ballast water permit. But if the EPA doesn’t do an about face on the permit, then the Great Lakes will suffer a big Strike Two.

And the final pitch is how the states handle the EPA ballast water permit. Each of the Great Lakes states has the chance to add protections to the EPA permit when it is applied in state waters. Given how much states depend on the Great Lakes for drinking water, economic growth, and quality of life, you’d think that the states would be lining up to bolster protections against the invasion of non-native species like zebra mussels. But so far, the silence has been deafening—and the clock is ticking. The states have until May to certify the EPA permit. At least one state (Wisconsin) has said it only wants to apply the weak EPA/Coast Guard standards, cracking the door open for new invaders.

State inaction would be Strike Three. With apologies to “Casey At The Bat,” striking out would bring no joy to Mudville … or to the Great Lakes.

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.

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.

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!

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 John_R_Goss@ceq.eop.gov.

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.

Asian Carp, Oil Spill and Great Lakes Restoration Highlights

September 9, 2010

I’m back after an August hiatus, and there’s lots happening. Here are a few items:

Asian carp: the breaking news is that the Obama Administration has created a new position, Asian carp director, in the Council of Environmental Quality, and filled it with none other than our own John Goss, the former executive director of the Indiana Wildlife Federation. I’m very excited about this. I’ve known John for years and he’s passionate about the Great Lakes and very good at getting things done, a combination we really need in that job. He’s got his work cut out for him because the position doesn’t come with new legal authority, just the power to persuade and cajole and coordinate. But that’s what John does best, so I have high hopes. And we look forward to working with him. Check our NWF’s news release on the Asian Carp Tsar announcement.

On the flip side, the Administration (via the Corps) is actively fighting a lawsuit brought by the states to shut the canals. The hearing is going on this week; stay tuned for the outcome.

Kalamazoo River oil spill: The good news is that the leak was stopped within days, the oil seems to be contained and it never reached Lake Michigan. The bad news is that the spill occurred in an area that was flooded due to heavy rain events the days prior. At the spill site, 5 acres of wetlands were heavily saturated in tar oil; around 30 miles of river banks were coated with oil; and surrounding wildlife has been significantly impacted and will continue to be impacted until all oil is completely removed from the river banks.  Issues continue to arise around worker safety and residential rights. The spill happened in Congressman Mark Shauer’s district, and the committee he sits on (House Transportation and Infrastructure) is holding a hearing on it in Washington next week, September 15. NWF’s response coordinator, Beth Wallace, and I have been invited to testify before on the committee. More on that soon.

Great Lakes restoration: The first grants are out! EPA made the grant announcements this week in Green Bay and Toledo. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson personally made the announcements, four grants in Ohio totaling $1.9 million, and seven in Wisconsin at $5.2 million. These are the first wave of what’s expected in the next few weeks to be 270 projects and $160 million in grants from EPA.

Not to be outdone, the Healing Our Waters –Great Lakes Coalition announced our own Great Lakes restoration grants, 13 of them totaling $190,000. These grants are seed money to enable small organizations to go after the larger government grants.

There’s more, of course, but this post is long enough. Next week, I’ll be in Washington doing double duty: visiting Congressional offices as part of a HOW fly-in, and tracking the Kalamazoo River Oil spill hearings. I’ll post when I have more news.

Bad News, Doubled, on Asian Carp

June 24, 2010

I don’t know which is worse: the discovery of a live Asian carp beyond the electric fence that is supposed to stop them, or the dismissive and obstructionist reaction to that discovery from the Army Corps of Engineers. That’s the negative impression I got after listening to an emergency briefing held yesterday afternoon by the agencies responsible for protecting the Great Lakes from the monster carp: the Corps, the Coast Guard, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. EPA, and the Illinois DNR.

Of course it’s bad news that a 20-pound, 34-inch bighead carp was captured in Lake Calumet, 6 miles from Lake Michigan and beyond the electric fence and the O’Brien Lock. There is no remaining physical barrier between where the fish was found and the Great Lakes. And because the fish was found in larger body of water (Lake Calumet) so close to Lake Michigan, chemical treatment may be unwise or impossible. That leaves increased electrofishing and netting to try to find more invasive carp and suppress whatever populations are present.

The good news is that most of the agencies on the call said that they plan to implement the electrofishing and netting measures and expressed a new urgency in making sure they were doing all in their power to stop the Asian carp from advancing. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US EPA, the Illinois DNR…. they all announced new measures to combat the carp, and each of them pledged to ramp up their efforts.  But not the Corps.

The Corps spokesperson, Mike White, made it sound as if the Corps would just like to wash its hands of the whole problem. On the call and in the press release, he said the Corps’ primary responsibility was:

“to continue to operate the locks and dams in the Chicago Area Waterway System for Congressionally authorized purposes of navigation, water diversion, and flood control. We will continue to support fish suppression activities by modifying existing structures such as locks as requested by other agencies to support this common goal…”

Protect the Great Lakes? Forget about it. Apparently the Corps does not think that protecting the Great Lakes is part of its mission.

When asked if the Corps would post on its website the results, including the date and location, of the additional DNA sampling we assumed the Corps would be conducting, Mr. White said the Corps is in discussions with the institutions who have done sampling in the past (Notre Dame) about whether Corps will continue doing DNA sampling at all. So, will the DNA sampling resume? The Corps doesn’t know, but it certainly hopes those discussions come to resolution sometime soon. Well, that’s a relief, right?

Later, in a call with the press, Mr. White was asked if the discovery of a live carp beyond the electric fence, 6 miles from Lake Michigan, made a response to the problem more urgent. His response was that the Corps would consider its statutory authorities and determine a course of action. In other words, the Corps is going to think about it and get back to us.

Will the Corps act forcefully and with urgency? Forget about it – not to protect the Great Lakes.

What’s terrifying is that the Corps is the agency that is supposed to decide on whether a permanent separation of the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River is feasible. Given the performance we saw yesterday, why bother? Their answer is predetermined (since Great Lakes protection apparently isn’t part of the Corps’s mission), and given the low urgency that agency is assigning to this issue, it could be decades before it finishes the study, anyway.

We’re supporting a bill to force the Corps to do a real feasibility study on hydrological separation, and to do it rapidly. Thanks to the leadership of the Great Lakes senators, particularly Senators Durbin, Stabenow, Levin and Voinovich, this bill might move, and move quickly. It will be a big help with the Corps’ mission.

But what about the Corps’ culture? I think we need to change the agency’s incentives. How about this: if Asian carp colonize the Great Lakes, then the costs to the ecosystem and the economies that depend on it get deducted from the Corps’ annual budget. Or even better: deduct those costs from the paychecks of their staff.

That might light the fire under them the Great Lakes need.

Is this the Asian carp action plan we’ve been waiting for?

May 13, 2010

Last week, the federal and state and federal agencies constituting the Asian carp task force released what looked like an action plan to attack Asian carp.

The agencies’ plan is to take lethal measures to kill Asian carp wherever eDNA testing indicates those carp are present – most recently, near the O’Brien Lock and Dam and in the North Shore Channel. They will use rotenone to poison the fish in a two-mile stretch near the O’Brien section, and they will use electroshocking and netting to kill the fish in a narrow section of the North Shore Channel. In both locations, they will close the locks for several days to increase the efficiency of the response actions.

Attacking the Asian carp wherever the evidence says they are present sounds like progress to me. It sounds like the kind of action plan we asked for three months ago.

It is also a positive sign that the agencies are acknowledging by their actions that DNA evidence is a good indicator of where carp are. The agencies are using the DNA hits to determine where to attack the carp.

But while these specific measures are good ones, it is now unclear whether these actions actually part of a comprehensive plan.

Unfortunately, the agencies’ press release (pdf) makes what they are proposing sound like more monitoring and not like a new response plan. And after a conversation with agency staff, it’s clear to me that their plan is being spun as monitoring: the agencies are planning on poisoning fish to see if Asian carp are present, not killing fish because the evidence already indicates that Asian carp are present.

And that difference is important; it will make a real difference on the ground. If agencies’ activities are just monitoring, then there is no way of knowing whether new evidence of Asian carp will trigger a killing response or some form of monitoring that isn’t lethal to carp.

So if this is the agencies’ new action plan, they should tell us. And if this is not their action plan, then they should come up with one fast. It’s been over six months and the Asian carp continue to move faster than the government.