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Michigan hails judge’s move in Asian carp fight against Chicago

The five Midwestern states suing to keep Asian carp – the behemoths that gorge on plankton and leap 10 feet in the air – out of the Great Lakes claimed to score a legal victory Monday.

The five Midwestern states suing to keep Asian carp – the behemoths that gorge on plankton and leap 10 feet in the air – out of the Great Lakes claimed to score a legal victory Monday.

On Monday, a federal judge held an initial hearing and scheduled more hearings for expert testimony in early September. The Michigan attorney general’s office heralded the decision, since it will be the first time the case is heard on its merits. The Supreme Court earlier this year declined to take up the case.

The goal of the lawsuit is to force Chicago to shut down two locks except in cases of emergency, preventing Asian carp from using the canals to reach the Great Lakes. That plan has met with with fierce resistance from barge and tour-boat operators.

But with carp DNA showing up near Lake Michigan and a bighead carp found in June just six miles from the lake – and beyond the electronic barrier that is supposed to keep it out – a number of groups are calling for drastic action before the fish can infiltrate the Great Lakes with potentially dire consequences.

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“We have here a carp highway,” Robert Reichel, Michigan assistant attorney general, told the judge in the hearing.

Where are the carp now?
Silver and bighead carp have been working their way up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers for years, but haven’t yet – to anyone’s knowledge – established a population in the Great Lakes. Scientists worry that if they do, they could wreak havoc on populations of prized fish like salmon and walleye, both through decimating their food source and by eating their larvae and eggs.

Bighead carp can grow to more than 100 pounds, and silver carp are known for leaping 10 feet out of the water – a major danger to recreational boaters.

“They’re sort of living missiles,” says David Lodge, a biologist at the University of Notre Dame who has done research locating the carp DNA in the waterways near Lake Michigan.

In their bid to close the locks, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Ohio have filed suit against Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Still, opponents of the lawsuit have stressed that just one fish has been found in 10 months of searching, and say that closing the O’Brien and Chicago Locks would have drastic economic ramifications without any guarantee of keeping the carp out.

“The carp have traversed half a dozen locks in the Illinois river system,” says Jim Farrell, executive director of the Infrastructure Council at the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. “If locks were part of the solution, carp wouldn’t be there.”

He calls the lawsuit “a politically motivated activity” by attorney generals up for reelection, and cites one study that puts the direct economic impact of shutting the locks at $4.7 billion – with larger ripple effects.

Solution or stopgap?
But John Selleck, a spokesman for Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, says shutting the locks is a key step. “It’s like knowing you live in a high-crime area and the front door is wide open,” he says.

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Many groups, meanwhile, stress that all of these measures are simply stopgaps for a bigger problem.

“This is a chance to set a new precedent for how we think about invasive species,” says Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Mr. Brammeier and others say that ultimately, what’s needed is a solution that permanently separates the Mississippi River basin from the Great Lakes, after it was connected through the Chicago Area Waterway System more than a century ago.

Without that, any short-term efforts to stop the Asian carp are likely to fail. “I’m convinced that all of these are just band-aids, and we need some major surgery,” says David Ullrich, executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.