WASHINGTON — Last week’s fish census in the Chicago River turned up 100,000 pounds of dead fish, killed by a powerful toxin.
No Asian carp floated to the surface, and everyone seems to agree that was very good news.
“This is good news, but the threat is still serious,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has warned that Asian carp establishing themselves in the Great Lakes “would be devastating to the Great Lakes fish and ecosystems.”
Asian Carp are 100-pound freshwater leviathans that eat plankton like vacuum, breed like rabbits and have conquered the Mississippi River basin from the Gulf Coast to within 100 miles of Lake Michigan.
Should they enter Lake Michigan, the fear is that the voracious eaters would eventually displace the steelhead, trout, whitefish and other fish that the entire Great Lakes fishing industry rely on.
The bad news for Klobuchar and other Minnesotans worried about the fish’s potential spread into the Great Lakes (and implicitly, eventually to Lake Superior) is that their preferred method of stopping the fish — closing the locks on the Chicago River — seems now even more of a long shot than once it was.
“Hopefully the recent search puts an end to the extreme calls for permanent lock closure,” said Mark Biel in a statement after the fish kill ended. Biel is executive director of the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois, which has helped form the UnLock our Jobs coalition to fight lock closures.
Open for business
The chemical kill was ordered as a way of assessing just how far the carp had come.
Currently, the fish are being kept out of the Great Lakes through the use of a prophylactic electronic barrier that functions very much like an electronic barrier one might use to keep a dog in one’s yard, or a robotic vacuum away from the staircase.
It’s strong enough that the Army Corps of Engineers warns humans not to swim in its vicinity.
However, environmental DNA testing found traces of Asian carp above the barrier, suggesting that some fish might have found a way around it and (possibly) even into Lake Michigan.
Hence the kill. And the results of that kill, say lock-closure opponents, is evidence that it shouldn’t happen again.
“This latest fish kill — where out of over 11,000 dead fish totaling over 100,000 pounds not one Asian Carp was found — should strengthen faith in the existing barriers,” Biel said.
“None of us want to see Asian carp in the Great Lakes. What concerns me is a few are still calling for the economically devastating separation of the Great Lakes from the Mississippi Watershed when plenty of other options exist. What good does it do if we destroy the village to save it?”
A case for abstinence
Biel’s group cited a DePaul University study [PDF] that closing the locks would cost the Chicago area $582 million in its first year, and $4.7 billion over 20 years.
Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who supports closing the locks, cited figures that shippers would lose between $64 million and $69 million a year.
Regardless of where the shipping numbers wind up, they’re dwarfed by the $7 billion in economic activity that proponents say Great Lakes fisheries are responsible for.
Legislation has been introduced to close the Chicago locks until a permanent solution could be found. The two bills (one in the Senate, one in the House) have bipartisan support from Klobuchar, Al Franken, John Kline, Erik Paulsen, Rogers and others.
That measure includes language aimed at mitigating economic concerns, including a promise of funds to offset economic hardships caused by the locks’ closure and an override authority so the locks could be opened if there was a risk of flooding.
Even still, the bills have failed to draw a single supporter from the Illinois or Indiana delegations. And so far, the legislation has gone nowhere.
A long-term solution
So what are the next steps are for stopping the fish, and could there ever be a scenario under which President Obama would consider closing the Chicago locks permanently?
On the record, White House officials pointed to the following statement by John Rogner, co-chairman of the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee.
“We will now look at the entire body of evidence collected thus far, including DNA sampling results and all of our conventional sampling with nets and electrofishing gear to see if we can draw any further conclusions about the risk of invasion and establishment of Asian carp in Lake Michigan through the Chicago Area Waterway System,” Rogner said.
The goal is a full “ecological separation” between the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan. What form that will take (or when it might be implemented) remains unclear. According to Asian Carp Control website:
“Ecological separation is a term that means no movement or transfer of organisms between two basins. When spoken in the context of the Mississippi and Great Lakes’ basin, which are connected by manmade canals, the intent of the term ecological separation is meant to convey that no aquatic organisms should pass between these two basins via the Chicago Area Waterway System… or any other connecting water body or overland transport mechanism.
“Ecological separation does not necessarily mean the stopping of shipping or recreational traffic between the two basins, lock closure, or more frequent or more severe flooding.
Privately however, White House aides say that while there was little chance of the locks closing in the meantime before the kill, there’s even less of a chance now.
Congress seems in no great hurry to step in either.
All in all, eight bills have been introduced so far this session that deal with Asian carp in some shape or fashion, including the Klobuchar-Paulsen-Franken-Kline measure. Just one has made it out of committee.
That fortunate bill, sponsored by Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, Klobuchar and others, would ban the importation of Asian carp. Given its bipartisan support from across the Great Lakes states, one would assume that if any bill would pass this would be it.
Not so. Not yet anyways.
Levin’s Asian carp importation ban was reported out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in December of 2009, and has sat stagnant in the Senate ever since.