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Mounting urgency as Asian carp threaten the Great Lakes

A congressional hearing this week on Asian carp in the Great Lakes region raises scientific questions and political difficulties. What are the best ways to prevent invasive fish from proliferating, and what would be the economic impact of blocking their passage from the Mississippi River?

By Staff writer / February 10, 2010

Two Asian carp are displayed Tuesday during a congressional hearing on preventing the induction of the carp, an invasive species, into the Great Lakes. The Asian carp, which can grow up to 100 pounds, were caught in Havana, Ill.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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Washington’s focus on snowfall this week was briefly diverted by fish – Asian carp – that threaten to invade and then gobble their way through the Great Lakes ecosystem, likely ruining the pleasure boating and fishing industries of abutting states and Canadian provinces.

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Though a looming snow storm caused many official activities in Washington to be cancelled, congressional hearings on the fish threat sailed ahead Tuesday in a nearly empty hearing room – propelled by a mounting sense of urgency and scientific warnings that some Asian carp are even now in Lake Michigan.

The hearings came on the heels of a White House summit Monday to help state and federal stakeholders unite around a plan to fight the threatened invasion by the bighead and silver carp species, which have been working their way north since they escaped from Louisiana catfish farms around 1993. The summit produced a $78.5 million budget and thick “control strategy framework” that identified steps that could be taken.

Critics want specific steps and a timetable

The document was hailed as a unified plan by some and criticized by others for failing to identify specific steps to take – and a specific timetable for implementing them.

Some suggested that electric fish barriers and other measures will meet the threat. Others, though, said the real question is whether to permanently close the channels linking the Mississippi River with Lake Michigan – a step resisted by the shipping industry and others worried about its economic impact.

“All of the actors in this drama have become very good at laying out the different tools they have in their toolbox,” says Thom Cmar, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago. “Incremental steps and political posturing [are] still substituting for concrete action. There’s still no clear plan everyone thinks will work and no timetable taking specific steps.”

Varying views on the threat – and what to do about it – were on display at the hearing, the first Congress has held on Asian carp. Front and center: Just how to keep the carp from swimming through the Chicago Area Waterway System’s canals and waterways, which provide a navigation link between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River and an outlet for storm water and sewage effluent.

Are electrified barriers effective?

The US Army Corps of Engineers since 2002 has built two electrified barriers to prevent the fish from proceeding upstream. It plans to build a third by September along a major link, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, to prevent carp from swimming through to Lake Michigan.

“Because Asian carp DNA [detection system] has not yet undergone complete scientific independent peer review, the results should be considered ‘preliminary’ at this time,” said Maj. Gen. John Peabody, commander of the Great Lakes Division of the Army Corps. He defended the efficacy of the electric barriers and cast doubt on findings of a Corps-employed scientific team that maintains the carp are being detected miles beyond the barriers – including in Lake Michigan.

“Any assertions that the barrier system is, or has been, ineffective in restricting upstream movement of bighead and silver carp are speculative,” Peabody told Rep. James Oberstar (D) of Minnesota, chairman of the House subcommittee on transportation and infrastructure, and a few other lawmakers.

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