Caging the crafty carp

First Posted: 1/11/2014

Keeping the Great Lakes clear of Asian carp could cost as much as $18 billion and take 25 years to accomplish.

Then again, it could cost nothing.

That huge discrepancy is drawing the ire of Congressional lawmakers following the recent release of a long-awaited study on how to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. It comes with high stakes for the region's $7 billion fishery, and in particular, the western Lake Erie basin between Monroe, Mich., and Sandusky, Ohio, where the local economy is dependant on fishing jobs and tourism opportunities.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report — called “The Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study” — offers eight options for keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. The most expensive option is the one preferred by most Great Lakes scientists. It calls for creating a physical barrier between the lakes and the Mississippi River basins.

The least expensive option, which requires no additional cost, relies on the existing electric barrier between the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan. For years, these barriers have been the last line of defense against this crafty and destructive fish.

The other six options seek physical barriers or construction work ranging from $7.8 billion to $15.1 billion. One requests $68 million a year for non-construction measures, including public education, tougher enforcement of boating laws, and use of poisons to kill carp.

Fishing for funding

Congress will ultimately decide what level of funding, if any, is appropriated to the project.

The engineers, themselves, stopped short of recommending any one option in the study, which was a point of contention for two U.S. Senators: Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. Both said the Army Corps of Engineers should have identified the best option. During Monday's conference call with the media, Stabenow said the only obvious choice to cross off the list was “no action.”

U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan said he recognizes the concern, but warns that Congress must be careful not to rush into making a decision. The fiscally conservative Republican represents Ohio's 4th Congressional District, which includes part of Lake Erie's Western Basin,

“All proposed solutions need to be weighed against the effects on the region. However, any additional expenditure in these already economically-troubled times needs to be prioritized very carefully, keeping in mind the best use of taxpayer dollars in the long term, Jordan said.

There are other options.

A 2012 engineering analysis issued by the Ann Arbor-based Great Lakes Commission estimated watershed separation's cost at $9.5 billion, nearly half of the amount projected by the corps of engineers. The key difference between the studies is that the corps used a 500-year flood event for its proposal, whereas the consultant for the Great Lakes Commission and Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Cities Initiative used a 100-year flood. The former is more conservative, based on conditions only likely to occur, on average, once in 500 years, according to Scott K. Johnson of the Journal of Great Lakes Research.

Jordan's office will be monitoring the issue closely.

“Any occurrence of an invasive species is of great concern,” Jordan said. “In this situation, the Asian carp poses ecological and even financial harm to Lake Erie. We have heard from concerned constituents and businesses that would be harmed by the new invasive species. Should the carp find its way in sufficient numbers into the Lakes, local fishing industries would be at risk.”

The South's Revenge?

How did such a breed of killer carp arrive on the Great Lakes doorstep?

If that question was asked of Hillary Clinton, she would likely retort “does it really matter since the carp are already here.” And down South, some Southerners may point to a portrait of that infamous union general from Lancaster, Ohio — William Tecumseh Sherman — and proclaim this is Dixie's revenge.

Like the scorched-earth policies of that saw the Civil War general burn down Atlanta as well as everything between it and Savannah, Ga., during his “March to the Sea;” 150 years later, it is the Asian carp which are threatening to pillage the Great Lakes of the north with their march up the mighty Mississippi.

These Asian carp were introduced in the 1960s in the South to help control weeds and parasites in aquaculture operations such as fish farms.

But never trust a carp to be a hero, especially if it your importing one of their tough cousins from Asia — the bighead, black, grass or silver carp. They can spread into new habitat quickly and easily. It was only a matter of time before they worked their way into the Mississippi River. From there, it was doom's day.

The Asian carp easily migrated north up the Mississippi River, jumping over barriers such as low dams and moving through flood waters, where the hardy fish spawned, laying hundreds of thousands of eggs at a time. They spread into tributaries, eventually finding an Illinois canal connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River watershed

In the process they've crowd out native fish populations not used to competing with such aggressive invaders. Researchers believe that in habitats like Lake Erie, the Asian carp populations are capable of grazing lake-bottom plants basically down to nothing. This would cause havoc to the ecosystem that see walleye, perch and other fish and birds relying on it.

The invasion has come with its quirks. One of the species — the silver carp — is known for its bizarre leaping behavior when startled by passing boats. As the fish shoot from the water like missiles, boaters not only have had expensive equipment damaged, but bones broken.

A bigger fight

The impending assault by carp follows a wave of invading species that have attacked the Great Lakes in recent decades. Many were carried into the waters by international shipping vessels. Among them were sea lampreys, alewives, zebra mussels and quagga mussels.

Federal researchers estimate that even if Asian carp are kept out of the Great Lakes, they could affect freshwater fisheries in as many as 31 states representing some 40 percent of the continental U.S.

The Army Corps of Engineers report was originally slated for release at the end of 2015. It was submitted earlier after several Great Lakes congressmen voiced concerns that the fishery could be changed during the 25 years that it will takes to complete such a project.

Dave Wethington, the corps' project manager, doesn't dispute that concern.

“Can we do it quick enough?,” he said. “The answer is, nobody knows.”

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