New Asian carp study could delay action until it’s too late

On its face, President Barack Obama’s 2011 battle plan to keep the Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes looks deep and aggressive, but it should actually alarm anyone worried about the survival of the lakes as we know them.

The $47 million plan is chock-full of studies and possibilities, such as electric fish barriers and enhanced DNA testing and even the creation of a Web site, to provide up-to-date information about what’s being done. It identified 19 potential pathways in various Great Lakes states that have the potential for the transfer of invasive species between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins.

But what it decidedly does not include is the most dramatic action that could be taken to close off the largest and most dangerous access point for the voracious carp, which have made their way up the Mississippi after escaping from southern fish farms. That action would be closing the canals and locks that connect Lake Michigan at Chicago with the Mississippi River.

Breaking that link has been endorsed by every Great Lake state except Illinois and by numerous environmental groups, but Chicago-area business and political interests have fought it aggressively.

Sleight of hand

Meanwhile, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley seems to be taking a new tack — diverting attention from the danger that the Asian carp pose by way of the Chicago canal to what he says is the greater danger and greater damage done by invasive species that make their way into the Lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway.

While that argument might win Daley points in a high school debate, in the real world it counts for little. Let’s acknowledge that zebra mussels and quagga mussels and dozens of other newcomers brought to the lakes in the bilge tanks of ocean-going vessels have done enormous damage. In what way does that justifying allowing the Asian carp to swim in and possibly finish the assault on the lakes’ ecology that was begun by the mussels?

As Jim Johnson, a biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “You cannot treat invasive species like you do other water pollution, where you lower it to an acceptable level and it will dilute away.”

Once established, invaders such as the 100-pound Asian carp do not just go away.

And that’s where the biggest danger of Obama’s new plan comes in. The $25 million study on how to permanently block the Asian carp from migrating to the Great Lakes is not expected until at least 2015. By then, it may be too late. While parochial interests in Chicago are being protected, the Asian carp problem could be studied to death — the death of the Great Lakes, that is.

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