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Great Lakes Article:

Leaping Asian carp threaten boaters, the Great Lakes
By Doug Haddix
The Columbus Dispatch

HAVANA, Ill. - Like fireworks from the deep, dozens of Asian carp shot up to 10 feet out of the water as two research boats plied the murky Illinois River.

When frightened by the sound of passing boats, the silver carp jump, sometimes startling and injuring boat passengers.

‘‘We’ve heard stories of people getting hit in the face, having their teeth knocked out or loosened or having their nose broken," said Mark Pegg, an ecologist guiding a 21-foot research boat earlier this month.

When the carp start popping, some Illinois River boaters wield garbage-can lids or folding chairs as shields, said Pegg, director of an Illinois Natural History Survey research station at Havana, about 40 miles southwest of Peoria.

Because of some well-meaning American farmers and a flood, millions of the flying silver carp and their cousins, bighead carp, are swimming in U.S. rivers far from their Asian homes.

And now, only 50 miles of water and an experimental electric barrier near Chicago stand between the advancing horde and the Great Lakes, which could be devastated by the voracious fish.

‘‘It is a nightmare scenario for the Great Lakes," said Dennis L. Schornack, U.S. chairman of the International Joint Commission, an agency that monitors waterways connecting the United States and Canada.

‘‘They would take out the entire bottom of the food chain that all commercial and sports fishing depends on."

The fish, which grow to an average 4 feet and 60 pounds, made their way north to the Illinois River after escaping from fish farms during massive flooding along the Mississippi 10 years ago.

The jumping silver carp on the Illinois River weigh an average of 15 pounds. Older Asian carp farther south can weigh up to 100 pounds.

Despite the potential devastation of the $4 billion Great Lakes fishing industry, the government’s response has been to cobble together what Schornack calls ‘‘a baling-wire and chewing-gum fix."

Lack of more significant action ‘‘could turn the Great Lakes into a carp pond," Schornack said.

The fix, which even supporters concede is not foolproof, typifies the government response to destructive foreign animals and plants: inadequate money, costly delays, and a bureaucratic tangle of state and federal agencies.

Although the threats from such invaders have been known for decades, governments at all levels have been slow to act and even slower to spend money.

In the United States, 11 federal departments are involved with invasive species, yet the buck stops at no particular office. Each state has an approach - or lack of one - to handling invasive plants and animals. City and county responses vary.

The group charged with coordinating federal efforts on invaders bluntly conceded the failures in its 2001 management plan: ‘‘No comprehensive national system is in place for detecting and responding to incipient invasions," according to the National Invasive Species Council.

‘‘Unfortunately, inadequate planning, jurisdictional issues, insufficient resources and authorities, limited technology, and other factors often hamper early detection and rapid response in many locations."

While some progress has been made, especially in sharing information among federal officials, the council’s executive director acknowledged that many objectives set in the group’s 2001 plan have not been met.

‘‘We have missed a number of these deadlines because of staffing and other priorities," Lori Williams said.

The council, created in a 1999 executive order by President Clinton, has six full-time workers, including Williams.

The staff’s challenges exceed those that David faced against Goliath, said U.S. Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, a Maryland Republican.

‘‘They’re David’s younger brother, without the sling."

The full council of 11 federal-department representatives meets three or four times a year, as does its advisory committee of more than two dozen experts from universities, industry and state government.

The council ‘‘can’t regulate, can’t pass bills," Gilchrest said. ‘‘They’re just out there collecting information, and that’s good. I don’t blame them. I wish they used the bully pulpit more."

The onus rests with Congress, he said.

‘‘We’re the ones who make policy. We need to tap into their expertise."

Government gaps

Ten years after she led a landmark study for Congress on invaders, Phyllis Windle sees few victories and countless failures.

‘‘My main concern is that overall, U.S. policy is really not much stronger than it was 10 years ago," said Windle, a senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based research and lobbying group.

‘‘Bad policy perfectly coordinated is no improvement," Windle said. ‘‘We’ve seen a tremendous amount of new activity but not much progress.

‘‘It’s one of my great frustrations that we’re still in the same boat," she said. ‘‘Many of the gaps we noted (in the 1993 report) in both the underlying legal authority and the way policies are implemented and enforced, those gaps are still there. Only a few have been changed in the intervening decade."

Among the gaps:

Foreign ships continue to dump ballast water, sediment and aquatic life into U.S. harbors. Even on the Great Lakes, where foreign ships are required to have exchanged pumpable ballast water in the open sea before entering the St. Lawrence Seaway, at least four significant new invaders have been detected since the rules took effect a decade ago.

Proposals to require foreign ships to treat ballast water before dumping it are being debated but, even if they’re approved, would not take effect for at least five years.

Only 2 percent of all cargo that enters the United States is inspected. The prevalence of cheap wood-packing material enables insects such as the emerald ash borer, an Asian bug that’s killed more than 6 million ash trees in the Detroit area, to ride to America on a foreign ship.

Plants, flowers, trees and other horticultural items from overseas are checked for insects and other pests but not for their own potential to become invasive.

Anyone can order invasive plants on the Internet and have seeds or plants delivered to a home or workplace.

No effective monitoring program exists to detect destructive foreign pests early so that a rapid response might limit their spread.

‘‘Without such a system, obstacles to rapid response are less likely to be addressed, and invasive species will continue to fall through the cracks," said a July 2001 report from the General Accounting Office.

Sam Speck, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said Congress should move aggressively.

‘‘The federal government and the Congress have been slow to address this problem," said Speck, chairman of the Great Lakes Commission, an advisory group of U.S. and Canadian officials.

‘‘They can’t even get their act together to pass a reauthorization of the Invasive Species Act, and frankly that is very frustrating."

Several bills dealing with invasive pests are stalled in House and Senate committees. Among other changes, the bills would require ballast-water exchange for foreign ships entering any U.S. port, set up a screening procedure for new exotic species in the pet trade, and allocate up to $170 million for prevention, control and research involving aquatic invaders.

Faulty barriers

Experts in both Canada and the United States fear the devastation that Asian carp would bring if they reach Lake Michigan.

‘‘Basically, our lakes over the long haul would become a single-fish ecosystem," Schornack said. ‘‘It’s like a science-fiction novel."

The best weapon is an electrified cable resting 25 feet across the bottom of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, a man-made waterway that connects the Illinois River through the Des Plaines River in Chicago to Lake Michigan.

The canal had become a revolving door for invasive pests, which can spread between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins.

To try to close that door, officials energized the barrier near Romeoville, Ill., in April 2002. But the $1.25 million barrier has a life span of just three years, after which its cables are expected to be badly corroded.

The system shorted out in March, leaving the channel unprotected for 25 hours. Officials don’t know whether any Asian carp crossed.

Money for a second barrier, with a life span of 20 years, is tied up in bills stalled in Congress. A 17-agency task force hopes to complete the $7.5 million barrier in late 2004.

As a last resort, if Asian carp threaten to pass through the first barrier, authorities plan to poison a 6-mile stretch of the canal — killing everything in it at an estimated cost of $750,000.

Despite the threat, Asian carp still do not show up on the federal government’s list of banned ‘‘injurious species."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in mid-September said it would begin studying bighead carp to determine whether importing or moving the fish across state lines should be illegal.

Bighead and other Asian carp are sold live in fish markets in many U.S. and Canadian cities. Accidental or intentional release into the Great Lakes or their tributaries could allow them to spread.

Evaluating and publishing a rule about a dangerous foreign pest typically takes 12 to 18 months. Currently, the Lacey Act bans importation of 12 groups of mammals, four species of birds, three families of fish, one crustacean, one mollusk and one reptile.

Those numbers show just how little progress has been made against destructive pests, said David Lodge, a biologist at the University of Notre Dame and a member of the national invasive-species advisory council.

‘‘People in this room could name a lot more that should be on the list," Lodge told an International Joint Commission conference in September in Ann Arbor, Mich.

‘‘In some cases, the tools are there, but they are not being used effectively."

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