The fishy war on the homefront
They've been loose for almost 20 years, they're currently kicking in our front door and political faction are too busy fighting to be constructive - it's a pretty good time to be an Asian Carp
2012 Touchstone Nominated Story. The following story from the Toledo City Paper was nominated for the Press Club of Toledo's Touchstone award for Excellence in Journalism.
It was probably just another carefree day on the lake. A laughing 15-year-old Seth Russell was riding the wake of a speedboat on an inner tube, enjoying a beautiful day on Lake Chicot in Arkansas. The next thing he knew, he woke up in a hospital bed with a broken jaw - he was knocked unconscious by the acrobatic Silver Asian Carp, an invasive species that has been migrating up the Mississippi River since 1993 and can jump up to ten feet out of the water. That was three years ago and more than 850 miles away, but it stands as a pretty strong figurative symbol of what's happening to the Great Lakes right now - the Asian Carp are on our front doorstep, ready to strike, and political infighting, a lack of communication and self-interest have left us extremely vulnerable against a powerfully built fish that aims to knock out the two front teeth of the economic production of the Great Lakes - the fishing and tourist industries.
Welcome to the machine
It's a political mess. Although Asian Carp, whose constant eating habits threaten the food supply of native fish, were inadvertently introduced the the Mississippi River by escaping southern fish farms almost two decades ago, the issue has only been recognized in the Midwest for the last four years - and in that short amount of time, it's become a war between the states. Illinois has already seen the beast Asian Carp are already plying Chicago waterways. Critics of Illinois' handling of the situation say that the state regulators are more worried about their own wallets than they are about cutting off the card from the Great Lakes - and possibly beyond. The Attorneys General of Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have fueled two lawsuits against the State of Illinois, which has refused to allow the immediate closing of canal locks and is accessed of dragging their feet on the debate of physically separating the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes by disconnecting Lake Michigan from the Chicago River and it's canals; a man-made system the legality of which has been fought in court since it was created in the 1920s. The legal action, one suite filed with the U.S. Supreme Court and the other in the Federal District Court of Northern Illinois, are both at a standstill, without he five attorneys general unsure of which avenue will be more efficacious to pursue - by the time a potential court case concludes, it could be too late.
The federal funding from the almost $80 million war waged against the fish, headed by the White House's Asian Carp Czar John Goss and led by the efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers, is focused on strengthening an electric barrier 20 miles south of Chicago and researching possible solutions. And, right now, the Army Corps are not required to release a report with a systematic containment plan until 2014, something that the five states, under the lawsuit, want moved up to 2012. The current application of the White House's funds favors the defensive ideology of Illinois politicians, while undermining the approach advocated by the majority of the Great Lakes states, which want an immediate permanent separation of the waterways is the reason they are seeking the assistance of the legal system.
"I think the federal government is perplex, because of Illinois, because of the power - the President is from Illinois, you have a second-ranking person on the Democratic side of in the Senate, Dick Durbin, from Illinois, you have the former Chief of Staff of the President, Rahm Emmanuel, Mayor of Chicago. I mean, think about what is going on here, " says U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Toledo), who under recent redistricting will be running for a seat in a district that has just gained a fair amount of Lake Erie shoreline as Ohio's 9th congressional district now runs east from Toledo to the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood.
Kaptur, who sponsors the Stop Asian Carp Now Act, a bill that aims to create a division between the Chicago River system and the Great Lakes, realizes there isn't much time - Asian Carp DNA has already been gaunt on the other side of the electric barrier. The Army Corps has recently increased the voltage of the underwater fence, but many doubt that the barrier is completely secure.
The time is now
Acknowledging that the timing is crucial to stop the migration of the carp, Dale Vitale, chief of the environmental enforcement section for the Ohio Attorney General's office said, "we don't know when [the population of the fish in the Great Lakes basin will overwhelm the eco-system] and, of course, one or two carp is probably not enough - nobody really knows how many it will take to create a sustainable population in Lake Michigan, but there is DNA evidence of carp which have passed the barrier and have been retrieved in areas of restricted access in Lake Michigan."
It's not that the Army Corps of Engineers is incapable of handling the issue, it's that the corps doesn't have a clear direction on what tactics to employ with the strengthen-the-electric-fence-and-study vs. separate-the-waterways-now argument pulling them in different directions. All while the federal government - which isn't requiring the Army Corps report until 2014 - seemingly just throws money at the problem, failing to pinpoint an immediate course of action. So, can we pull together, or will the Asian Carp take a huge bite out of our economy?
"I'm very skeptical, I'm very concerned and I'm very disappointed at the inability of the federal government working with the states to find a workable solution," Kaptur said. "I'm deeply worried, that's all I can say. The Illinois delegates, when you meet with them, they take it much more lightly because they already have the problem. But they threaten us, in this region. They're already got these [fish] in the Illinois river, so what's their motivation?"
The critics of immediate action by shutting down the locks in the Chicago Waterway System say that it would drastically hurt the city's economy. While U.S. Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D- Illinois) has supported legislation that calls for an eventual separation of the waterways, other Great Lakes politicians, such as Kaptur, believe he and other Illinois figureheads are growing less interested in the topic. Durbin (D-Springfield) was unable to be reached for this article.
Although there are eight species of Asian Carp outside of their native range, in the United States usually only four - silver (the ones that jump), bighead, grass and black - fall into our definition of "Asian Carp," while other like the common carp, which is abundant in the Great Lakes, thought to be environmentally harmful and technically an Asian Carp, fall outside the modern American categorization. The feted four have been breeding and moving up the Mississippi since the early 90s after they escaped aquaculture ponds where they were used to control algae growth. Now, the rapidly reproducing fish that literally has no stomach threatens to deplete the food supply that fish native to the Great Lakes depend on. So, then the question is, why have we waited almost 20 years to debate the issue? And according to Kaput, the threat has only been raised in Congress over the past four years.
Bad to the corps
"Do you know what's interesting?" says Kaptur, "In all my meeting with the Army Corps [prior to the last four years], and I meet with the Army Corps on a regular basis, they never brought it up."
Perpetual flooding and problematic levees have been the first priority of the Army Corps of Engineers in the southern Mississippi region for many years, and they never imagined the problem of Asian Carp escaping fish farms would get this bad.
"People down here never thought it would be as big of an issue as it is now, I can assure you that," says Kavanaugh Breazeale, deputy of media service in the Vicksburg, Mississippi District of the Army Corps of Engineers.
The Chicago waterway may be the focal point of the political debate, but it's not the only place that Asian Carp can sneak into the Great Lakes. Toledo's closest worry is the Eagle Marsh near Fort Wayne, Indiana - a natural connection of glacial origin that ties the Mississippi River to the Lake Erie by, at one point, bringing the Wabash River, which is already heavily populated with carp, and Maumee River within a mile of each other. And with no one certain of how many fish can sustain a thriving population, one flood could be all it takes.
"There are other pathways that need to be watched," says Lake Erie Water Keeper Sandy Bihn. "The carp are spreading through the other rivers and streams that are tributaries to the Mississippi."
And the thing that is even perhaps more worrisome than the Great Lakes' corruption by Asian Carp, is that their invasion of America won't stop with the Lakes - if the pass the barrier, they will inevitably be introduced to ecosystems all over the country, jus as other invasive species have before them. Like past aquatic invaders such as zebra mussels, the carp could possibly do multi-million dollars of damage to states across the nation, which is why in late September, the attorneys general of 17 states jointly sent a letter to Congress urging the passage of the Stop Asian Carp Now Act. If our lines of defense are broken, and they enter the Great Lakes, there is no concrete strategy, at this point, to control their population.
"Quite frankly," says Vitale, "I can tell you truthfully, I don't know of anyone that I have talked to who is a fishing expert, including the government fishery expert [and U.S. Research Fish Biologist at the Columbia Environmental Research Center], Duane Chapman, who has said they are aware of a strategy that will control them."