By Michael Regan
The Tonawanda News
As Asian carp creep closer to the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River basin several prominent senators from the region are urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to finish a five-year study on the matter.
The federal agency is conducting the study to determine whether a permanent hydraulic separation would prevent the invasive species from spreading into the lakes.
Called a “looming aquatic threat” by U.S. senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, several other politicians from the Great Lakes region have joined the local coalition in asking the corps to wrap up the research, which is not planned for completion until 2015.
In 2011, Asian carp were found six miles from the Great Lakes, prodding Gillibrand to pressure the Army Corps to temporarily close the O’Brien and Chicago Locks — part of a series of canals called the Chicago Area Waterway System — to avert the invasive species from spreading into New York’s waterways.
A new report released this month by the Great Lakes Commission and the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative found that separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins would be effective in halting the spread of Asian carp, preventing billions in possible damage.
“This report confirms that hydrological separation of the Chicago Area Waterway System and the Great Lakes is not only feasible, but necessary and the most effective long-term option to stopping the flow of Asian carp and other invasive species into the Great Lakes,” said Gillibrand, who is a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Efforts already taken to control their expansion include the placement of two electrical barriers in the Chicago-area canal system where the Mississippi River links to the Great Lakes at an annual cost of $8 million. But those attempts have fallen short.
Recent evidence taken from DNA samples indicates the carp may have entered the water system in 2009, but have not yet begun to breed, according to Jennifer Nalbone, director of navigation and invasive species for Great Lakes United, an environmental group.
“We have a pretty intensive monitoring effort,” she said. “It’s possible a few fish are above the barrier.”
Asian Carp were intentionally introduced into American waterways in the 1970s to help clean certain areas in a controlled environment, Nalbone said, though at issue now are inadequate federal laws that belie more intensive problems including “a broken regulatory system” that also has led to population explosions with other invasive species like the Lions fish and the Burmese python.
“Once they get here it’s realized they are high impact invasive species,” Nalbone said. “By that time the cat’s already out of the bag.”
The result, she said, has led to hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. Conservative estimates have pinned potential harm to the region at an additional $200 million.
If the carp were to migrate to Lake Erie, the impact would be felt more intensely because it is shallower and warmer than other lakes, thereby possessing higher biological productivity, Nalbone said.
The large fish can grow up to 90 pounds and four feet in length. They are also known to be easily agitated, leaping out of the water when rattled.
“We also have the most productive Great Lakes fisheries of all the lakes,” she said. “Not only would it impact them, but it would be a safety hazard. You only have to go on YouTube to see people getting hit in the face with flying carp. It can be funny until you see someone gets a broken nose.”
Indigenous to Southeast Asia, two species of carp have spread to the brink of the lakes, with each capable of eating up to 20 percent of its weight, largely feasting on plankton and causing competition among native species.
The aggressive fish could strip $7 billion from the recreational fishing, boating and tourism industries, negatively impacting the general economic well being of the entire region, according to Schumer and Gillibrand.
Nalbone said she has seen increased political pressure for a solution in recent years, which could help a permanent barrier to be put in place - a measure she views as the best option.
“Leadership from across the region is getting in line behind separation and we strongly urge the corps to get behind separation as well,” she said.