Too Late to Stop the Asian Carp Invasion?

Asian Carp caught near Great Lakes
Illinois Department of Natural Resources

Even as lawmakers proposed new legislation designed to stop Asian carp from spreading into the Great Lakers, environmentalists fret that the battle is close to being lost.

"Trying to determine when we should be worried about Asian carp getting into the Great Lakes is really a fools' errand. We should be concerned today - we should have been concerned 10, 20 years ago," said Joel Brammeier of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. "[The problem] warrants extraordinary measures. We're past that point right now. The threat is imminent, real and could happen any day."

Last week, a 3-foot-long, 20-pound Asian carp was caught by a fisherman about six miles downstream of Lake Michigan in Lake Calumet on Chicago's South Side. That discovery set off alarm bells among local officials. They fear that the fish, a voracious invasive species, were well on their way toward establishing themselves in the Great Lakes where they would pose a threat to the region's $7 billion fishing industry. Asian carp can grow to 100 pounds and 4 feet in length.

Video: The Asian Carp Invasion

Meanwhile, lawmakers introduced a federal bill on Wednesday in hopes of permanently separating the waterways now linking the Mississippi River basin and the Great Lakes. Instead of passing through the current network of canals and rivers, boats and barges might one day use massive boat lifts, for example, to bypass the blockade.

The costs and workability of such a plan, however, remain unknown. U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., introduced the "Permanent Prevention of Asian Carp Act" to speed research into such a plan. Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., introduced it in the House.

But Brammeier and other ecologists remain dissatisfied with the government response to date, adding that the normal legislative grind will be too slow to respond to what they describe as an emergency situation.

For decades, they note, bighead and silver carp have been migrating up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers toward the Great Lakes. Two electric barriers, which emit pulses to scare the carp away or give a jolt if they proceed, have served as a last line of defense. Now, they say, the carp have breached that line of defense, a fact that so far has failed to stir the bureaucracy into action.

"The fish are already there," Brammeier said during a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon. "There really isn't any discussion at this point as to whether they fish are present," he said. "We don't know at this point if they will begin spawning tomorrow or a year from now. But that's a wild card that we can't afford to play."

One idea is to ask President Obama to put an "incident commander" in charge of the multiple federal agencies who might have a role to play.

Henry Henderson of Natural Resources Defense Council suggested that would present the best chance to contain the carp spread. Until now, he said the government response had lacked coordination. Even worse, he said officials at the Army Corps of Engineers had not demonstrated an appropriate sense of urgency in the face of increasingly threatening circumstances.

"This has not been treated as the game-changer that it actually is," he said.


Asian Carp: They're Getting Near and Why That's Bad News

Part of the problem is the evolving role of the Army Corps of Engineers, whose mission in the Great Lakes region traditionally centered on promoting navigation. More recently, though, it's been tasked with another mission to invest greater effort in the restoration of ecosystems.

"In Chicago, that message has been slow to catch on," said Andy Buchsbaum, of the National Wildlife Federation. "The Corps continues to be focused on navigation and shipping rather than ecosystem protection - even though Congress directed that mission change."

Lawmakers' New Legislation

The Stabenow- Durbin legislation would require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete research on so-called hydrological separation within 18 months. The Army Corps, which has said research could take up to five years, said Wednesday it couldn't comment on pending legislation.

"While this method would require a complex feat of engineering, we need to understand the costs and benefits and whether this method offers the best hope for a long-term solution for containing not only the carp, but other invasive species," Durbin said in a statement.

But Jim Farrell, executive director of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce's Infrastructure Council, said there are other options that should be explored to keep the carp out of the lakes, such as expanding electric barriers, conducting fish kills and keeping low oxygen levels in some waterways so fish couldn't live or pass through.

"A physical barrier which would require the stopping of barges and the reengineering of water management in the Chicago region is likely to be a dead end," Farrell said. If enacted, the study would be required to begin within 30 days. The Army Corps would be required to send a progress report to Congress and President Barack Obama within six months and again in 12 months.

A hearing is planned on Asian carp for July 14, Stabenow said. The study, the lawmakers said, would address the possible costs of such a project, as well as flooding concerns and the effects on Chicago's waters and boat traffic.

The bill also is written to give federal agencies the power to monitor other potential carp threats, according to Stabenow.. She said her office has been in touch with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources about the possibility that carp could get from a tributary of the Wabash River near Fort Wayne, Ind. into the Maumee River through flooding and eventually get into Lake Erie. So far, she added, nothing had been found to indicate that's happening.

There are no natural connections between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi basin. More than a century ago, engineers linked them with a network of canals and existing rivers to reverse the flow of the Chicago River and keep waste from flowing into Lake Michigan, which Chicago uses for drinking water.

The U.S. Supreme Court twice turned down a bid by Michigan and other Great Lakes states to close locks leading to Lake Michigan to block the carp. Camp and Stabenow said they'll continue to fight to shut the locks.

The AP contributed to this report

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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.

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