The threat of Asian carp entering the Great Lakes involves so many different jurisdictions that most observers pin their hopes on a federal solution to avert an ecological nightmare. And while Michigan natural resources officials continue to press for federal action, they are not sitting on their hands waiting; they’ve gone on the offensive themselves.
“We have a plan in place for the detection and surveillance of Asian carp as well as what our response would be if they were detected,” explains Tammy Newcomb, who heads up research for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Fisheries Division. “We’re doing everything we can to keep them out of here and if we do get them in here, we’re going to do everything we can to not only prevent them from spreading, but to extirpate them.”
Everyone’s main concern is that the carp, which are about 50 miles from Lake Michigan, will breach the electronic barriers in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and invade the Great Lakes. But there are other possible vectors.
“We are particularly concerned about bait fish,” Newcomb said. “The DNR [see michigan.gov/dnr] has produced a brochure to help anglers tell Asian carp from other common bait fish, and we’re developing a video to further that effort.”
Newcomb’s concern about Asian carp being introduced through bait buckets seems to be supported by the recent discovery of a couple of large Asian carp that were found by Illinois Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologists in a Chicago park lagoon that is separated from the Chicago canal. Officials believe the fish wound up in the lagoon because anglers used them for bait years before.
Seizures of live Asian carp in January and February by Canadian officials at the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor—more than 20,000 pounds in three separate incidents – prove that the fish are being illegally transported through Michigan. A traffic accident involving any one of those trucks could have resulted in fish entering Great Lakes waterways.
Recently, Michigan conservation officers arrested fish farmers from Arkansas selling illegal grass carp in Michigan. And while that’s a slightly different issue—grass carp were on the prohibited species list many years before the other Asian carp species were added—it points to the potential of fish entering the Great Lakes through illegal trade.
Observers are of two minds about the progress of federal action.
“As a member of the Asian carp coordinating committee, I have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of work being done on the federal side in coordination with the states,” said Patty Birkholz, a former state senator who oversees the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of the Great Lakes.
But Erin McDonough, executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs, says federal action is too slow.
“This is an issue of immediacy,” said McDonough, who believes Asian carp deserve the attention of the candidates in the upcoming presidential election. “We want to see the Army Corps of Engineers put into effect a separation of the watersheds in the Great Lakes Basin from the Mississippi River now.”
McDonough praised recent bipartisan federal legislation offered by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and Rep. Dave Camp (R-Midland) to speed up the process.
The Stop Invasive Species Act would require a federal action plan to stop Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes through a number of rivers and tributaries. If passed, the legislation would direct the Corps of Engineers to develop a plan to permanently separate Lake Michigan from the Chicago waterway system.
Said Camp: “This measure expedites the necessary hydrological separation study in order to protect the Great Lakes and the hundreds of thousands of jobs the Great Lakes support.”
“It has become clear that Asian carp are migrating throughout the Great Lakes region, and efforts to stop the spread of this invasive species must now address every possible point of entry,” Stabenow said. “We can’t afford to wait.” Besides Michigan, media outlets have reported Asian carp in Minnesota and South Dakota.
The bill also requires the Army Corps to submit a progress report to Congress and the President within 90 days of the law’s enactment. The full plan would need to be completed within 18 months.
As the federal plan takes shape, Michigan officials continue working on their own initiatives. The DNR is adding an employee to help implement the strategic plan and coordinate efforts with other state and Canadian officials.
“On the state side, we have some real possible solutions that are forthcoming,” Birkholz says. “We are spending millions of dollars to deal with this.”
Although some pessimists say entry of Asian carp in the Great Lakes is a foregone conclusion, Newcomb says “they’re absolutely wrong.”
“We have a plan,” Newcomb explains. “Anglers are a part of our plan. But hydrological and/or ecological separation from infected waters is the ultimate solution.”