By Neale Gulley
The Tonawanda News
A new study in the fight to keep invasive Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes suggests erecting a physical barrier between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River basin, where evidence of the harmful species has been identified.
On Tuesday, results of the study titled “Restoring the Natural Divide” were released by the Great Lakes Commission and the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.
The report analyzes various engineering options to separate both major watersheds near their confluence in the Chicago area.
Previously-installed electronic barriers have failed, and Asian carp were located last year within six miles of the Great Lakes basin.
“The study released today makes clear that there are viable solutions to protect the Lakes from this invasive species. Time is a luxury we don’t have. Genetic material from the carp have already been found in the Chicago Area Water System past the electronic barriers, which are currently our only line of defense against the carp,” U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, co-chair of the Great Lakes Task Force, said.
The proposed multi-billion dollar undertaking is being viewed by many as a small price to pay.
Slaughter immediately followed up Tuesday’s news release by urging the Army Corps of Engineers to also look closely at the proposals and hasten its own similar study.
The Army report isn’t expected to be complete until 2015.
Why all the fuss?
Asian carp are large, prolific and consume vast amounts of food — weighing up to 100 pounds and ranging as long as four feet.
Their large size, ravenous appetites and rapid rate of reproduction pose a significant threat to New York’s ecosystem, studies have shown. This aggressive invasive species could destroy the Great Lakes fish populations, devastating the $7 billion recreational fishing industry, tourism industry and the general economic well being of the entire region.
With proposals to segregate the watersheds near Chicago coming in around $5 billion, proponents expect some resistance from industry in that area, but point to far greater potential losses in recreation on the lakes if the carp take over.
Current efforts to control the spread of Asian carp include two electrical barriers around Chicago where the Mississippi River links to the Great Lakes through a series of canals. However, these efforts have fallen short, as illustrated by evidence indicating that Asian carp may have migrated past the electrical barrier.
The lakes provide recreational opportunities and support shipping, fishing, boating and tourism industries that generate 1.5 million jobs and $62 billion in wages, Slaughter said.
“If they were to invade the Great Lakes basin, they would have a devastating effect on the native ecosystem,” Bill Hilts, an outdoors specialist with the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., said.
But he said the problem of Asian carp goes beyond the species’ effect on the ecosystem.
Asian carp are also known to react to the sound of boat engines by leaping out of the water by the hundreds.
“That puts boaters in danger when they’re moving at any rate of speed,” he said, adding the phenomenon has resulted in many documented cases of injury when boaters collide with the airborne fish.
“We should have the attitude that we want to keep them all out. Zero tolerance. We don’t want any Asian carp in the Great Lakes, period,” he said.