TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — With marauding Asian carp on the Great Lakes’
doorstep, the federal government has crafted a $78.5 million battle plan
that offers no assurance of thwarting an invasion and doesn’t use the most
promising weapon available to fight it off.
The surest way to prevent the huge, hungry carp from gaining a foothold in
the lakes and threatening their $7 billion fishing industry is to sever the
link between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River basin, created by
engineers in Chicago more than a century ago.
The strategy released by the Obama administration this week agrees only to
conduct a long-range study of that idea, which could take years. The
government also refuses to shut down two navigational locks on Chicago
waterways that could provide an easy pathway for the carp into the lakes,
although it promises to consider opening them less often.
Instead, the plan outlines two dozen other steps, from strengthening an
electric barrier designed to block the carp’s advance to using nets or
poisons to nab fish that make it through. That’s an expensive gamble that
may not keep enough carp out of the lakes to prevent an infestation.
“We’re spending close to $80 million just for a short-term deterrent,” said
Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, an
environmental group. “We need to stop pushing money toward temporary
solutions and get everyone on track toward investing in one that works for
good — and that means absolute physical separation.”
To be fair, the solution environmentalists prefer — cutting ties between the
lakes and the Mississippi — would mean reconfiguring some 70 miles of canals
and rivers. That’s a massive undertaking that could not happen quickly and
is fervently opposed by barge operators who move millions of tons of
commodities through the Chicago locks each year.
Bighead and silver carp — both native to Asia — have been migrating toward
the lakes since escaping from Deep South fish ponds and sewage treatment
plants in the 1970s. The biggest can reach 100 pounds and 4 feet long,
consuming up to 40 percent of their body weight daily in plankton, the base
of the aquatic food chain. Once established in the lakes, the carp could
starve out the prey fish on which popular species such as salmon and
The carp have already infested parts of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers,
driving away many native fish. Silver carp are known to hurtle from the
water at the sound of passing motors and slam into boaters with
While scientists differ on whether the carp would thrive in the Great Lakes,
which are colder, deeper and ecologically different than rivers, many say
the risk is too great to take any chances.
“None of us know for certain what their impact would be,” University of
Notre Dame biologist David Lodge told a House subcommittee this week.
“There’s only one way to find out, and I don’t think any of us want that.”
Pulled in different directions by the fishing and the barge industries, and
politicians in Illinois and those from the other Great Lakes states, the
Obama administration says the only realistic approach is to confront the
carp on multiple fronts instead of taking the bolder step of severing Lake
Michigan from the Mississippi basin.
“We cannot fight biology with engineering alone,” Cameron Davis, the
Environmental Protection Agency’s spokesman on the issue, told the
Yet the federal plan is heavy on technological innovations. Among them:
barriers using sound, strobe lights and bubble curtains to repel carp and
biological controls to prevent them from reproducing. They’re promising
measures — but still on the drawing board.
Environmentalists and Great Lakes governors outside of Illinois who want to
close the Chicago locks claim it’s the best short-term option. But it isn’t
a foolproof solution, as young carp might still be able to slip through the
leaky structures. The Chicago waterways also have other access points to
Army Corps of Engineers officials are putting their faith in a two-tiered
electric barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal about 25 miles from
Lake Michigan, to which they will add a third section this year. It emits
pulses to scare off the carp or knock them unconscious if they don’t turn
back. No carp have been found above the barrier, although biologists have
detected their DNA in numerous spots past it and even within the lake
“While we’re all talking,” Lodge said, “the fish are swimming.”
That almost certainly means at least some carp have eluded the device and
reached the lake. The government’s plan aims to keep their number low enough
to prevent them from breeding. The problem is that no one knows how many
carp need to make it into the lake to establish a foothold that can’t be
“This is a lot of money to pile into stopgap measures,” said Phil Moy, a
University of Wisconsin Sea Grant researcher. “It may do some good in the
short term, but in the long term it’s not going to solve the problem of
invasive species on both sides of the divide. Ecological separation has to
happen for this to be successful.”