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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?

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But minutes later, David Lodge, a Notre Dame University scientist the Corps has hired to detect carp, said his testing system is indeed accurate – and was approved last week by an audit team of specialists from the Environmental Protection Agency.

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“What we have discovered, unfortunately … is that both silver and bighead carp are in the waterway north of the electric barrier,” Dr. Lodge testified. “The most troubling result is that silver carp are not only at the doorstep … but in fact appear to be in Lake Michigan – or at least in Calumet Harbor opening to Lake Michigan.”

Trying to prevent a breeding population

This did not mean, he emphasized, that a carp “invasion” has occurred. There is still time to keep a breeding population from developing in the lake, although how much time is impossible to tell, he said.

“We know silver and bighead carp are both very abundant south of the electric barrier,” he said. “Those fish are stacked up … against the electric barrier. If it’s less than 100 percent effective or [if] there’s a flood” that washes them past the barrier, the fish could surge into the lake, Lodge said.

There were other signs, too, of chaffing for action to close the locks and place other physical barriers in the channel to defend the lakes. The US Supreme Court refused to order an immediate closure of Chicago canal locks last month.

But MIchigan last week filed new motions to force action, said Rebecca Humphries of the the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment.

“Is our goal to biologically and physiologically separate these watersheds – or is it not?” she asked.

While applauding efforts to coordinate activity, federal funding, and congressional attention, Ms. Humphries said, “quite frankly we need to do more.” She added: “We do not feel that continuing to operate the lock structure … is a sustainable strategy.”

Barge owners oppose closing canal locks

Testifying for the American Waterways Operators, Del Wilkins, vice president of the Canal Barge Co., said his group supports strong action to stop the carp threat but will not support totally closing the locks.

“We strongly oppose those proposals,” he said in a written statement. “These ideas do not meet the test of our fundamental principle to ensure that appropriate actions balance environmental protection with commercial sustainability.”

Closing the locks would stop barge traffic, replacing the lower emissions and high capacity of barge transportation with truck and rail congestion. Others testified that closing the locks would have minimal impact on the region. Still, Mr. Wilkins said his group would consider more limited opening and closing of the locks, as noted in the White House framework document.

A reduced schedule of lock operation does not satisfy many. As long as a physical connection exists between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River, carp and other invasive species have opportunities to enter the lakes, Lodge and others said.

Waiting for a flood or power outage that would sweep the fish into the lake would be like playing “Russian roulette with the economy and the environment,” Lodge said. “We’re sitting here talking, and the fish are swimming.”

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