Mitt Romney, Mr. Obama's rival in the election, says the administration is moving too slowly. He has suggested that “America put a man on the moon” in less time than it’s taking to protect the Great Lakes from an invasion of the big fish migrating up the Mississippi River watershed, threatening to broach Lake Michigan at Chicago.
Sure, encroaching carp aren’t in the league with jobs or foreign policy when it comes to national priorities. But the political debate over what to do about the disruptive Asian carp population also isn’t just about the ecology and hydrology of the world’s biggest freshwater system. It's also about the 64 electoral votes locked up in four Great Lakes battleground states: Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
For now, both candidates are focused on how the federal government can solve the problem – nothing will happen for at least another year because the Army Corps has until the end of 2013 to complete its study. Meanwhile, local and state governments, aided by fishing entrepreneurs and Chinese investors, are making headway on a lemons-to-lemonade-style solution: export the carp to China for service on dinner plates there.
This summer, the Illinois Department of Commerce provided $2 million toward building a new carp processing plant in Grafton, Ill., which is expected to employ 39 people and provide new opportunities for fishermen. That’s part of at least $10 million in state investments into the carp fishery in the past two years.
“We want to move these fish out of the river – and we’re going to attract people that have large boats and want to go out and work hard and bring in a lot of weight,” Ben Allen, owner of American Heartland Fish, told Michigan Public Radio this week. With the state’s help, Mr. Allen struck a deal with Chinese investors to ship tons of “wild-caught upper Mississippi carp” to Chinese food markets, where fresh, healthy carp are popular but difficult to find.
Kirby Marsden, former president of the Illinois Commercial Fishermen’s Association, told The New York Times last year that the US carp harvest could soar to 100 million pounds annually – a catch that could create as many as 200 jobs.
Some ecologists aren’t keen on the fishery idea, saying it is in effect an abdication to the invasion, which is expected to deplete native fish species, and could entrench the carp not only in US waters, but also in local business, tradition, and culture.
But others see efforts to boost the carp fishery idea as a partial relief valve for the pressure building on Washington to address the potentially devastating impact of voracious Asian carp on native fish.
While Congress has spent more than $1 billion since 2009 on a Great Lakes restoration plan championed by Obama, some have criticized the president for not committing to a proposal to physically block the Mississippi River from the Great Lakes at several points near Chicago.
Five states are suing the federal government to sever the hydrological connection between the lakes and the Mississippi, but shipping interests in Chicago are dead-set against the idea because it means losing a shipping channel to America’s biggest river.
In the view of the Youngstown News newspaper in Ohio, Obama has “shown greater deference to Chicago interests than to the rest of the Great Lakes states regarding aggressive action in heading off an invasion of the Asian carp that could drastically alter the lakes’ environment.”
At an environmental conference in Cleveland this week, former EPA chief Carol Browner defended Obama's decisionmaking. "The president is taking the issue seriously. He's ordered the study, he's ordered it expedited, and he needs to allow the results of that study to come forward so that we can make an informed decision about how best to proceed,” she said.
The Romney campaign, with little direct experience on carp policy, is for now sticking to generalities when it weighs in on what needs to happen.
"As president, Governor Romney will accelerate the Army Corps process and ensure that they develop a plan as soon as possible to protect both the ecology and economy of the region," spokesman Christopher Maloney told The Wall Street Journal.
Presidential action on the Asian carp invasion won't ultimately sway the election. But some Americans now hope it could become part of a broader economic recovery if fishery entrepreneurs have their way.
“It’s going to produce jobs, it’s going to revive our local fishing industry, and it’s a very important catalyst in trying to solve the environmental problem of carp in the river,” Grafton Mayor Tom Thompson told residents recently about the town's new fish-processing plant.