Carping on

Jun 30, 2010 at 12:00 am

The spin was dizzying last week after the discovery of a 20-pound Asian carp beyond the Illinois waterway barriers that were supposed to keep the invasive fish from the Great Lakes.

Politicians, scientists, environmental groups and chemical peddlers issued press releases urging acceptance of their version of the significance of the find and what it means — or should or shouldn't mean — for action.

Michigan attorney general and gubernatorial hopeful Mike Cox wrote to his "dear friends" that "the worst fears of the Great Lakes states were realized after Illinois authorities announced that a bighead Asian carp was found in Lake Calumet."

Assuming it wasn't planted there, just six miles from Lake Michigan, that news means the barriers — locks and electrified "fences" that shoot current through the water to deter the fish from swimming further — aren't working. At least one got through. And no one sensible believes it's just one.

That scares everyone but the people who work, for example, on the locks and canals in Illinois and Indiana, or at least the group representing them, the UnLock Our Jobs coalition. The group is funded by the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois, and purports to represent "agriculture, business, labor, river communities and concerned citizens" who want a "solution" to Asian carp without closing the locks.

The group's message during the last several months has been that permanent lock closure would so disrupt commerce as to have devastating economic effects on the area. Other studies have found otherwise — that jobs would be created by land-based shipping.

But the UnLock Our Jobs coalition's media efforts have been as voracious as the carp's appetites. Last week they reached a new low. "... isolated incidents of specimen upstream of existing barriers is not cause for alarm," the group said in its press release this week.

Really? We've seen the YouTube video of the swarms of jumping fish and read the reports about the decimation of the fishing industries on the Mississippi River and other waterways. By the way, that's a $2 billion industry in Michigan that could be destroyed if the Asian carp take over the Great Lakes.

For Republican Cox, last week's discovery was a chance to place such responsibility squarely in the lap of the Democratic President Barack Obama. So far, despite urging from Cox and other Great Lakes governors — except Illinois' — Obama has refused to order the locks' closure, which is seen by many as the only true prevention to keeping the fish from the Great Lakes.

Meanwhile, one of the more quiet and sensible statements issued in the wake of the fish find was from the Nature Conservancy. The environmental group touted the discovery as evidence that a new and somewhat controversial method of "environmental DNA" testing works. 

Earlier this year, scientists from the conservancy and the University of Notre Dame reported finding Asian carp eDNA in Lake Michigan. The eDNA is recovered from microscopic bits of tissue the fish shed. But the testing method is new and was challenged by — guess, who — the UnLock Our Jobs group.

Last weeks' finding of an actual fish bolstered the scientists' case that the fish are a more imminent threat that many have believed.

"Capturing a fish, after eDNA evidence tells us that actual, live fish have been in the area, is a pretty good endorsement of the method," says Nick Schroeck, executive director of the Great Lake Environmental Law Center at Wayne State University. 

The science is working. The carp are coming. The White House and the Army Corps of Engineers are waiting.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]