Fishing for ways to protect Lake Michigan
Written by Kalamazoo Gazette   
Monday, 09 March 2009 11:33
Asian carp will remain a pervasive threat to the Great Lakes until there is a reliable system to keep them out.

To date, there is no fail-safe barrier.

These formidable fish escaped from Arkansas catfish farms in the 1990s. Now, they are the dominant species in much of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

And they aren't far from Lake Michigan.

We can't let them in. They have the potential to damage or destroy the habitat for other fish, ruin the big lake's ecology, find their way into the other Great Lakes and eventually devastate our multibillion-dollar fishing industry.

"The worst-case scenario for the Great Lakes, if you compare it to what's happened in the Mississippi River, is pretty frightening," Marc Gaden, a spokesman for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, told Gazette News Service reporter Jeff Alexander more than a year ago. "This is a species that spreads quickly and is a feeding machine at the lower end of the food web. They take out all the things other fish eat.

"When you start mucking around with the fundamental aspects of the food web, you're playing with fire."

But we're not playing with fire here.

We're playing with the world's largest surface freshwater system.

Where is the sense of urgency on the part of our federal legislators? Are they actively working to find a fail-safe protection? Right now, the only structure keeping this invasive species from entering Lake Michigan is a small, six-year-old experimental barrier that delivers a non-lethal jolt to the fish.

A permanent electric barrier, built in the Illinois River in 2006, will be turned on at partial strength this summer. Even though the U.S. Coast Guard OK'd its operation, there are concerns. Would its use at full strength pose a risk to any boater who fell overboard near the barrier? Would it threaten the safety of cargo ships transporting flammable substances? These are valid questions.

But there also are questions about its effectiveness if it operates at a low level. Would such a low level render it useless against this aggressive fish?

So what's to be done?

We think any electric barrier strategy also requires sufficient backup, some reliable redundancy, to allow for possible power failure. Consider the fact that these fish originally escaped from containment ponds and have traveled farther and faster than anyone ever expected.

Let's not make the mistake of underestimating this species again.

Now here's an idea we find intriguing -- and it comes from private industry:

A company, Heartland Processing, intends to operate a rendering plant in Havana, Ill., starting April 1, to process Asian carp. They certainly will have a nearly limitless supply of the fish.

The Peoria (Ill.) Journal Star opined, "While we'd take a car plant, too, a carp plant will do what it can't: take on a non-native pest that the Illinois River's ecosystem can do without."

The plant would heat whole carp until most of the liquid content is steamed away, leaving only fish meal, for animal feed, and Omega-3 fish oil, for pharmaceutical uses.

Now there's a clever way to fight back -- a carp plant.

This may help reduce the burgeoning number of fish, but it won't eliminate the threat they pose to Lake Michigan.

The Alliance for the Great Lakes says the most effective way to stop the Asian carp would be to remove their pathway.

Perhaps that would be most effective, but how quickly could this happen? And where would the money come from to pay as much as $15 million to erect concrete walls and construct more shipping locks in up to six areas? More studies would need to be done, taking more time that we just can't afford.

The best option, at this point, is getting the new electric barrier operational as soon as possible and developing a fail-safe system to back it up.
 
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