Illinois hunting and fishing

Congress sets hearing on Asian carp

February 09, 2010 at 11:38 AM

Permanently severing a man-made link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River system is the only sure way to protect the lakes from voracious Asian carp, scientists and activists told a congressional panel Tuesday.

While praising the Obama administration for pledging to spend $78.5 million on a wide-ranging plan for thwarting a carp invasion of Lake Michigan through Chicago waterways, critics said it was at best a temporary and flawed approach.

“The goal must be ecological separation. The Great Lakes cannot wait,” Michael Hansen, chairman of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, said during a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment.

Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, acknowledged that redirecting the Chicago River’s flow and building a network of canals there in the late 19th century was an engineering marvel that had powered the city’s growth.

“But the stark reality that the system created an aquatic superhighway for Asian carp and other invaders calls the question of whether it is as critical today as it seemed 10, 50 or 120 years ago,” Brammeier said.

The federal government’s strategy, released Monday, calls for studying the possibility of severing ties between the lakes and the Mississippi basin.

But in the short term, it rejects the idea of closing two shipping locks that could provide an opening to Lake Michigan for the huge, hungry carp, which have infested the Chicago waterways south of an electrical barrier designed to halt their advance.

Genetic material from the carp — but no actual fish — has been found north of the barrier, located about 25 miles from Lake Michigan. Some of the DNA was located in Lake Michigan itself, but experts say it’s unclear whether any Asian carp are actually there — and if so, how many.

Scientists told the House subcommittee it was unclear how much damage the carp would do if they gain a foothold in the Great Lakes. But they said the risk was too great to ignore.

The carp feed on plankton that forms the base of the lakes’ food web. If they become established there, they could cause a chain reaction that starves out salmon, walleye and other pillars of the region’s $7 billion fishing industry.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is considering opening the locks less frequently, Maj. Gen. John Peabody said.

Del Wilkins, a spokesman for the American Waterways Operators, said even intermittent closure of the locks would “impede essential commerce without stopping the advance of the carp.”