Editorial: The urgency of this scary fish story

The Daily Herald

This isn’t the first time concerns have been raised about an invasive species threatening Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes.

Over the years, ecologists, biologists and fishermen have fretted about the presence of alewives, lamprey eels and zebra mussels. In some cases, changes were made to address the problem; in others, we’ve managed to coexist.

But with the Asian carp, local officials face a more formidable foe, one that threatens the $7 billion-a-year Great Lakes fishing industry and the Chicago-area economy.

U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert of Hinsdale and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Springfield have teamed up with the state in recent years to secure more than $25 million to fund the fight. Biggert plans to meet with Illinois’ new congressional delegates soon to brief them on the Asian carp issue.

Amid concerns about government spending cuts and a moratorium on earmarks that could affect funding, we urge her to continue pressing the issue and deliver this message to delegates and others: Find a solution before it’s too late.

Species of the Asian carp already have devastated the fishing industry in the Illinois and Mississippi rivers as they have migrated from the South since the 1990s. One variety known as “bighead” carp can weigh up to 100 pounds and consume 40 percent of its body weight each day. Its size physically crowds out native fish and makes boat traffic and swimming hazardous. Its diet eliminates food sources, and makes it nearly impossible for some native species, including those pursued by sport and commercial fishermen, to survive.

Today, the Asian carp is literally the invader at the gate. An electric barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Shipping Canal is the last line of defense to Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes. If the fish breach that barrier, it would be nearly impossible to control its population and the potential havoc it could wreak.

Hotels near fishing ports, bait and tackle shops and restaurants are among the businesses at risk.

Raising the stakes even more is a lawsuit filed by every Great Lakes state except Illinois seeking to close the Chicago locks that control the flow of water between the canal and Lake Michigan.

It has been struck down once by a federal judge, but remains in play. If the locks are closed, it could lead to flooding in many Chicago suburbs and stifle barge traffic carrying commodities ranging from asphalt to road salt to oil.

Technology such as bubble barriers and a poison are being studied. And it’s possible there may be a natural solution because of questions whether the carp could survive in Lake Michigan’s colder, deeper waters.

What’s clear is there must be urgency in developing a plan that works, because time may be running out and we may not get a second chance to repel this invader.