Keep Asian carp out of Michigan
Written by Detroit Free Press   
Thursday, 25 February 2010 19:56
If you're interested in the Asian carp issue, you can learn everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask during a panel discussion at 3 p.m. today at the Rock Financial Center in Novi, where the annual Outdoorama show opens an hour earlier. Participants will include the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Michigan United Conservation Clubs, Michigan United Charter Boat Association and the state Attorney General's office. And while attending this event certainly will bring you up to speed on the threat these voracious filter feeders pose to the Great Lakes food chain, you need to keep one crucial point in mind: The only sensible way to keep the Great Lakes safe is to close not only the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal -- the access point for carp -- but also to stop saltwater ships from coming into the lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway, the route by which dozens of other invasive species have arrived. Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox has taken the lead in the battle against the Asian carp by filing a federal lawsuit that would shut the Chicago canal, and that's a great start -- even if the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court fail to realize the risk of not ordering an immediate temporary closure. A victory five years from now for Cox and the other state AGs who have joined him will be a Pyrrhic one if enough Asian carp that have established a breeding population have slipped through in the meantime. Closing the Chicago Canal while ignoring the St. Lawrence Seaway would be like patching a leak in a house's roof while ignoring the fact that the back door is missing. No one is arguing that the St. Lawrence should be closed -- just that ships coming in from salt water should stop at a transit port somewhere in the tidal zone (which reaches as far up as Montreal). There they could transfer incoming and outgoing cargo between the salties and Great Lakes freighters, trains and trucks. The St. Lawrence Seaway has been an economic boondoggle that never has carried more than a fraction of the cargo that its backers projected, yet it still costs big money to maintain it. And of the roughly 140 invasive species we know are in the lakes, the majority of those that caused the most biological and economic damage in recent years arrived via ships that steamed up the St. Lawrence Seaway from the Atlantic Ocean. We've seen how zebra mussels sucked so much out of the bottom of the food chain that they collapsed the salmon fishery in Lake Huron. Biologists have been concerned that the same thing could happen in Lake Michigan, but they took heart from the fact that the warmer, richer southern end of that lake could be productive enough to avert disaster. That was before Asian carp started knocking on the door. Some people have theorized that the Great Lakes don't have enough of a plankton base to support them, but who wants to take that risk? Carp breed profusely. In parts of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, they formed 90% of the biomass years where they had been non-existent only 10 years earlier. The threat from invasive species will worsen as national economies around the world develop ever-closer links. There was no threat from zebra mussels until about 25 years ago. They arrived after the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States began trading with former Soviet republics in the Baltic where zebra mussels live. Cheap coffee and fish from Vietnam and those Fourth of July decorations made in China aren't sent to this country via air freight. Those are the kinds of products that come on ships, and those ships can make a lot of stops along the way. Who knows what biocontaminants they may pick up in their ballast and bilges before reaching the Great Lakes and discharging that ballast into our waters. And while we have passed a few ineffectual rules about dumping internal ballast, a study by Dr. David Lodge at the University of Notre Dame has pointed out a hazard that might be just as great -- living creatures that arrive in the marine growths of the outsides of the ships' hulls. The severity of the Asian carp threat has been known to federal and state biologists since at least the late 1990s. We ran our first stories about the danger in the Free Press in 2002, and some newspapers along the Mississippi and Illinois river systems were publishing stories about the danger earlier. Yet the federal government, which has the primary responsibility for protecting our waters from such threats, did virtually nothing early, when the carp might have been contained far below the lakes; when it did take action, it proved to be a waste of time.
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