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U.S. targets voracious Asian carp
Don Grigas
Chicago Suburban Newspapers

Developing a long-term method of preventing an invasive species of Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan and wreaking havoc on the lake's ecosystem is high on the agenda of various environmental groups and legislators, but Romeoville now finds itself the focal point of short-term efforts to choke off the breed's migration.

U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, R-13th District, of Hinsdale, met with representatives of various environmental and governmental agencies on Nov. 26 in Romeoville, to discuss the need for a second electronic barrier in the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal at about 135th Street near Romeoville.

``Make no mistake about it. Romeoville is in the front line of an international struggle to halt the Asian carp's advance into the Great Lakes,'' said Biggert, who called the carp a ``little terrorist.''

Recently the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. State Department joined the International Joint Commission and the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission to pledge $300,000 in emergency funds to purchase a backup generator for the barrier.

The low-voltage electronic barrier -- a temporary solution to the problem, officials say -- currently is the only barrier preventing the carp from making its way into Lake Michigan.

A second barrier, estimated to cost $7 million, is needed to guarantee a backup system in case the existing barrier fails, officials say.

But if weather conditions force a power outage, the barrier would be ineffective and could open the gates to disaster.

``With the winter coming on, and the potential of ice storms, we need to ensure the barrier is intact and functioning in case of power outages,'' Biggert said.

About a dozen representatives met in Romeoville Village Hall for a presentation and roundtable discussion outlining the gradual advance of the carp, which experts say can eradicate vegetation and disrupt the food chain within the Great Lakes if left unchecked.

If the fish gain access to the Great Lakes, the cool lake waters could provide a stable breeding ground, and result in another devastating blow to commercial fishing in the area, and perhaps recreation, officials say.

``Obtaining funding in 2003 is critical to proceeding with a plan to halt the carp,'' said Marc Gaden, a spokesman for the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission.

``We need to hitch it to the legislation vehicle next year that will get it done quickly and at full federal cost,'' he said.

Officials have feared the potential effects of the fish since they were introduced in Arkansas by the Agriculture Department in the 1980s as a suitable method for catfish farmers to cleanse breeding ponds.

The fish, which can grow to between 50 and 150 pounds and can consume up to 40 percent of its own body weight each day, eventually made its way into the Upper Mississippi River system in the early 1990s.

The species has made its way into the canal, which connects the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes via Lake Michigan.

The canal, once considered a ``killing zone'' that required intensive efforts to clean it and make it viable, now can support aquatic life.

``Our efforts to clean it up made it a corridor between those two watersheds. In a way we are victims of our own success over the last three decades,'' said Dennis Schornak, chairman of the International Joint Commission, United States Section.

The current barrier emits full-depth voltage that increases the further upstream a fish swims. It is not fatal to humans, but repels fish. If funding is obtained and the plan approved, a second electronic barrier would be established within 100 meters of the existing barrier, officials say.

The barriers are expected to last about 3 years before losing their effectiveness.

According to Gaden, although some Asian carp have been discovered in Lake Erie, ``there is no evidence at this time that they are spawning in the Great Lakes.''

Biggert said attention should be given to other entry points into the Great Lakes.

``We are looking at the side door to the Great Lakes, but we also need to look at the front door also,'' said Biggert, who said her father's commercial fishing business in Ludington, Mich., was ruined by the onset of lamprey eels in the 1940s.

``If this voracious fish reaches Lake Michigan and multiplies, it could devastate the ecosystem of the Great Lakes on a grand scale and endanger the multibillion-dollar fishing industry,'' Biggert said.

Biggert said she has made a request for an additional $500,000 in federal funding from the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, but officials won't know until January if funds will be available.

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