Our View: Keeping carp out of Great Lakes a national priority

Rockford Register-Star
June 26, 2010
Asian carp have infested Illinois waterways for three decades and have been swimming and eating their way up the Illinois River toward the Great Lakes ever since. Finally, there’s a sense of urgency to deal with this invasive species.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, whose home state of Illinois is most affected by the Asian carp crisis, Friday urged President Barack Obama to appoint a federal coordinated response commander for Asian carp. Durbin said multiple federal, state and local agencies deal with these fish and someone needs to coordinate the efforts and make sure they’re working together appropriately.

Durbin said in a letter to the president that by appointing a coordinator, it would signal preventing the Asian carp from establishing itself in Lake Michigan is a national priority.

There’s finally a sense of urgency because these fish that can consume up to 40 percent of their body weight in plankton a day are posing an economic threat. If they get into the Great Lakes, they could ruin a $7 billion fishing industry.

A single 19-pound bighead carp was found this month on the wrong side of an electric barrier meant to keep the fish out of Lake Michigan.

Michigan lawmakers and some environmental groups are treating the find as if it were the Gulf oil spill. Finding a fish beyond the barrier is a concern, but reasonable strategies need to be pursued.

Calls to close two Chicago-area river locks that connect Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River system via the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal are shortsighted.

That’s more a political solution for elected officials who want to be perceived as doing something than it is a sensible solution. Closing the locks will not keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes and will create about $4.7 billion in economic loss over two decades, according to an analysis by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.

“From a fisheries-only standpoint, closing the locks would not be effective in the long term for holding back the Asian carps,” Duane Chapman, a research fisheries biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey Columbia Environmental Research Center in Columbia, Mo., wrote in an e-mail.

“It might make a difference over a short time period of days or weeks, but not over the long haul, for a variety of reasons. And we don’t have any realistic way to eradicate the carp over an area the size of the Chicago Area Waterways System over the short term or long term.”

Chapman said there are other ways for the fish to get into the Great Lakes. The Calumet and Little Calumet rivers do not have locks or dams on them, so the fish can swim around the locks.

“Even under the proposed closure, the locks would be opened in the case of high water, to prevent flooding in Chicago,” Chapman said. “Under very high water, if you did not open the locks, the water would get out anyway, by overtopping or bypassing the locks. Where the water can get through, the fish can too.”

Eggs or young fish could be brought in the bilge water or ballast water tanks of barges. Individuals might intentionally throw Asian carp into the lake.

“The presence of a few bighead and silver carp in the Great Lakes does not mean that those few invaders will create a self-sustaining population,” Chapman said. “If you keep the number of invaders very low, the chance of establishing a population is low, even if conditions in the Great Lakes are conducive for survival and reproduction of these fishes.”

In little more than a decade, Asian carp have infiltrated the Mississippi River system. They make up as much as 70 percent of the fish population in the Illinois River and are the most abundant fish larger than 5 pounds in the lower Missouri River.

Illinois needs the help of neighboring states and the federal government to deal with this potential environmental disaster. It’s not time to panic, but it is time to make it a priority.