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Great Lakes Article:

Invader could threaten Lake Erie
Wildlife officials hope to prevent Asian carp from wreaking havoc
By John Seewer
Associated Press
03/22/04


TOLEDO - It's hard to say what would happen if the Asian carp -- a voracious fish that can eat half its body weight in a day -- slips into Lake Erie.

So far, the aquatic invader has mainly infested and upset the food chain in rivers and their tributaries outside Ohio.

But it's moving closer. The carp has been found in the Ohio River in Indiana and Kentucky. It's also creeping toward Lake Michigan.

Ohio wildlife leaders say there is little that can be done to stop the carp from moving up the Ohio River, so their focus is keeping it out of the Great Lakes and protecting Lake Erie's $1 billion sport fishing industry. Almost 60 years ago, another Great Lakes invader -- the sea lamprey -- wiped out the trout population.

The plan is to try to stop the Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes by building a permanent electric barrier across the 150-foot wide Chicago ship canal that connects Lake Michigan with the Illinois River.

``It has to be priority one for the Great Lakes,'' said Sam Speck, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. ``We cannot compromise getting it done.''

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was to begin building the barrier this spring, cut funding for the project. But it reversed the decision this month after lobbying from politicians and wildlife leaders.

A temporary barrier designed to last three years has been in place on the canal since 2002. It uses electric cables under the canal that emit low-level charges to keep fish away.

A group of 25 Great Lakes lawmakers asked that the funding be restored so the project can be completed this year.

Ohio wildlife leaders went as far as telling the federal government that the dredging of harbors and toxic cleanup in Lake Erie could wait until money was secured for the barrier.

``Those kinds of things, if we delayed them a year, we could still do them the next year,'' said Speck, also chairman of the Great Lakes Commission.

Mark Gaden, spokesman for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, credited Ohio's delegation for realizing that even though the barrier is being built in Chicago, it is vital to protecting all of the Great Lakes.

Because the carp, which can weigh up to 100 pounds, haven't been found in waters comparable to the Great Lakes, it's not known what impact they would have.

``We have every reason to believe that if they entered the Great Lakes, they would have a massive impact on the ecosystem,'' Gaden said.

Researchers say the carp are well suited to the climate in the Great Lakes area and have thrived in large river areas that are similar to the bays and estuaries found in the lakes.

``We have the kind of habitat that would be good for their growth and reproduction,'' said Gary Isbell, fish management and research administrator for the state's wildlife division.

Last fall, the state surveyed three Ohio River tributaries -- the Miami, Muskingum and Scioto rivers -- but did not find any evidence of the Asian carp, Isbell said.

Still, they have been found lower down in the Ohio River. ``I think most of us think that it is inevitable they'll become abundant in the Ohio River,'' Isbell said.

``We're hopeful we can prevent them from getting in the Great Lakes,'' he said.

The carp have the potential to alter the Great Lakes in a way not seen since sea lampreys destroyed the trout population during the 1940s and 1950s.

The sea lampreys -- sometimes called a ``fish vampire'' because they attach to the body of a fish and suck its blood -- are now under control. Officials used chemicals to kill their larvae in rivers that feed into the lake.

But it took years of research and millions of dollars to stop them.

The carp could damage Lake Erie's tourism industry too, costing jobs that rely on boaters and anglers.

``All of that brings in an enormous amount of money and a tremendous number of jobs,'' Speck said.

That's why there's a united effort to stop the Asian carp before it's too late.

``You don't have many opportunities to head off an invasion at the pass,'' Gaden said.

Those who make a living fishing on the lake know how devastating the carp could be and how quickly they could take over.

``It won't take long,'' said Pat Chrysler, a fishing guide from Put-in-Bay. ``It will take only one season and we'll have them everywhere.''

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