This past week, a multi-agency fishing expedition got underway looking for Asian Carp west of Lake Michigan in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. After catching a 19-pound Asian Carp (which is actually an umbrella term for up to nine difference species of carp introduced to North America from Asia) in Lake Calumet in Chicago last year, researchers and government officials from the state, federal, and municipal levels conducted significant testing to find traces of the invasive species outside of the Mississippi River system.
The result? Inconclusive. To some.
DNA evidence collected over the past two years has tested positive for traces of Asian Carp, but researchers have not managed to find a single Asian Carp in Lake Michigan.
“Shipping interests are declaring victory,” according to the Christian Science Monitor, “saying the results vindicate their conviction that the fish has not entered Lake Michigan. However, opponents say a wealth of DNA evidence collected over three years shows their presence at least as conclusively as producing an actual fish.”
So this is good news, right? Yes and no. Yes, this is fantastic inasmuch as Asian Carp are a terribly threatening invasive species which have worked their way up the Mississippi River and now threaten to break into the Great Lakes water system. Environmentalists and others are working overtime to prevent this from happening because Asian Carp have a tendency to destroy ecosystems that other fish depend upon by eating up to four times their body weight in a single day. And without the food they need to survive, and finding it impossible to compete with a fish that consumes with such voracity, many native species have been hard hit.
(This has led some groups of midwestern anglers to do their part to rid the river of Asian Carp in an annual Redneck Fishing Tournament. Yup.)
Those same groups working to keep the Asian Carp out of the Great Lakes have tried to do so by lobbying the federal government to permanently close the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal which connects the Mississippi River basin with the Great Lakes through Chicago. Close the lock, and you stop the spread. The problem? According to UnLock Our Jobs, an organization in favour of keeping the Canal open, is that $16B worth of shipping passes through Chicago each year through the Canal, and thousands of jobs depend upon its remaining open.
“Now, more than ever, it is abundantly clear that other regional stakeholders are not interested in a comprehensive solution to this problem,” argues Mark Biel, CEO of UnLock Our Jobs. “Unproductive rhetoric calling for extreme and virtually impossible action like closure and separation suggests that political carping is becoming a higher priority for some than stopping the advance of the species itself.”
In other words, the motivating factors in closing the Canal are being driven by emotion, rather than reason. And in the midst of a massive recession, now is not the time to consider tampering with the source of billions in commodity revenue, and thousands of jobs.
It is difficult to view the lack of actual Asian Carp in Lake Michigan as a positive when it strikes so many as justification for inaction. UnLock Our Jobs has pointed to this lack of hard evidence as proof that the five-state plan to close the Canal is shortsighted and unnecessary. If there are no fish, they maintain, there is no problem.
Yet a study organized by the Alliance for the Great Lakes argues that “future generations that will have to live with and pay for the likely serious consequences of the decisions we make today will view us harshly if we fail to apply the best scientific and engineering knowledge available.” They take the lack of hard evidence and weigh it against the years of positive DNA test results and conclude that we are lucky no Asian Carp have managed to overcome to electrified barriers in the Canal, but why push our luck? In their view, and in mine, it is only a matter of time before continued shipping in the Canal allows this invasive species access to the Great Lakes.
And so we wait for disaster.
But it’s a guessing game. Can the existing preventative measures continue to have success against the Asian Carp, limiting it to the Mississippi River basin and its tributaries? What would the economic impact be on the Great Lake states and provinces if Asian Carp manage to infiltrate the Canal and spread throughout the Great Lakes? What of the ecological impact of such a scenario? Can we justify inaction on the environmental front because of potential impacts on the economic front?
I worry the answer is yes – yes we can.