Feds Havent Cast Funding for Carp Barrier
Written by The Pantagraph   
Thursday, 01 December 2005 13:48

Construction of the permanent barrier to prevent Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes from the Illinois River is a year behind schedule.  Officials face an additional problem -- no one knows who will pay to operate the electric structure when it's finally complete.

The $1 million annual operating cost was supposed to be included in the federal budget bill just completed. But the money wasn't added, and whether there'll be cash to put it online and upgrade a temporary barrier located nearby is in question.

"It didn't get in," said Mike Conlin, resource conservation director for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "A lot of people were urging for that language to be added, but it didn't happen. ... We have to get that changed before next year."

Asian carp is a catch-all description of silver carp and bighead carp, species that were brought here from Asia to be raised for food. Unfortunately, their rearing ponds in the south were flooded and the fish escaped into the Mississippi River, where they thrived and began swimming upstream. They currently infest the Mississippi River to Minnesota and the Illinois River as far north as Starved Rock State Park. They are present in fewer numbers to within about 50 miles of Lake Michigan.

The fish grow to 100 pounds eating plankton, the foundation of the rivers' food chain. All young fish depend on plankton to survive.

Asian carp have grown in number in the southern portion of the Illinois River to the point they are beginning to crowd out sport fish, such as largemouth bass and white bass, Conlin said.

"They have definitely had an impact," he said.

Conlin fears the river's excellent sauger fishery, which brings tourism dollars to the Illinois River Valley, may face the same fate.

"That scares me," he said.

The carp also exhibit the strange and dangerous behavior of jumping into passing boats. Anglers have been injured. As evidence of carp's soaring numbers, local fishermen held the Redneck Asian Carp Tournament in the southern end of the river a few weeks ago. No rods or reels were allowed. Instead, the 30 boats merely traveled up and down the river letting fish jump inside. A total of 1,200 carp were kept in just two hours.

In April 2002, a temporary electric barrier was erected near Romeoville to stop the fish from reaching Lake Michigan and the rest of the Great Lakes, where they could cost the sport fishing industry billions of dollars each year. The permanent barrier is being built for $9 million raised from bordering states. The feds were supposed to pay the operating cost. Officials also hoped to upgrade the temporary barrier, which is at the end of its projected life span, to be a second permanent barrier.

Current operating contracts with the federal government run out in early May. Before that happens, Conlin hopes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will agree to pay the $1 million price tag to operate the barriers each year from money it receives routinely to operate the Illinois River waterway. If not, he hopes a separate bill will be introduced to pay operating costs of the new system.

In addition, the state of Illinois and the Department of Natural Resources are helping private investors investigate the feasibility of using the carp for a protein supplement in animal and human foods and as fertilizer. Illinois' total investment in the project is $150,000.

Stay tuned.

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