'New urgency' as Asian carp found near Lake Michigan

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

A live Asian carp has been discovered about nine miles from Lake Michigan — well beyond an electric barrier network designed to prevent the invasive fish from reaching the Great Lakes, officials said Friday.

The silver carp caught in a Chicago waterway was 28 inches long and weighed about 8 pounds, according to the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee. The fish was hooked Thursday by a commercial fisherman below the T.J. O’Brien Lock and Dam.

Silver carp are among four types of Asian carp threatening to invade the five, massive interconnected lakes, where scientists say they could compete with native species, disrupt aquatic food chains and devastate the region’s $7 billion fishing industry.

Michigan’s congressional delegation and the Snyder administration are pushing for ways to strengthen defenses against invasive fish at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam in Joliet, Illinois. The state’s congressional lawmakers expressed their dismay Friday about the development.

“This has been my fear for a long time — that this was inevitable,” U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, told The Detroit News on Friday.

“This is a big step in the wrong direction as far as stopping the expansion of Asian carp into Lake Michigan,” said Huizenga, a lead sponsor with U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, on House legislation introduced this week to force the Trump administration to release a completed study of options to fight Asian carp.

Although the invasive carp have infested the Mississippi River system, this week’s discovery marks the second time a live Asian carp was found beyond the barrier network. This first time happened in 2010 when a bighead carp was discovered in Chicago’s Lake Calumet.

“It’s really just continuing disturbing news as they inch closer” to the Great Lakes, said James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, a coalition of nearly 70 environmental and other groups.

The discovery of the silver carp gives the issue “a new sense of urgency,” said Huizenga, adding that he spoke about the carp issue Thursday evening to a White House liaison at the congressional picnic.

The finding also alarmed Michigan’s two Democratic senators, who are lead sponsors of the Senate version of the Stop Asian Carp Now Act that requires the Republican administration to release the study within seven days of the legislation’s approval.

“Today’s news is a wake-up call,” said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing, a Democratic co-chair of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force. “We need to know how the silver carp came so close to Lake Michigan and whether there are any additional carp in the area.”

“This discovery reaffirms that we must do everything we can to prevent Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes basin — starting with the swift release of the Brandon Road Study to evaluate the next steps needed to protect our waterways from this harmful invasive species,” said U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township.

Michigan’s entire congressional delegation backs the bill.

“The finding of Asian carp less than 10 miles from Lake Michigan is another alarm bell for action to protect the Great Lakes ecosystem from this invasive species,” said Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was scheduled in late February to make public a tentative version of the plan in February, but the White House has delayed it. The so-called Brandon Road study is supposed to outline a way to stop Asian carp at a critical choke point in the Illinois River.

The Army Corps of Engineers operates a series of electric barriers in a shipping canal 37 miles southwest of Chicago. It is intended to prevent fish from swimming between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River system.

The silver carp was found by a commercial fishing vessel whose activities to combat Asian carp are funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, according to Stabenow’s office. The Trump administration has targeted the restoration initiative funding for elimination, although the bipartisan Michigan delegation has objected to the gutting in funding.

“Trying to rely on just one barrier is just not going to be enough,” said Clift of the Michigan Environmental Council. “The concept of a second barrier ... would be an extra layer for protection.”

In February, Republican Illinois Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti argued in a Chicago Tribune commentary that three electric fish barriers in the Chicago Area Waterway System have succeeded in keeping Asian carp out of Lake Michigan.

Sanguinetti objected to what she claimed would have been a draft proposal for another electric barrier, noise cannons and other measures that would cost up to $270 million for construction and another $8 million to $10 million in annual operation and maintenance costs.

The silver carp has been sent to Southern Illinois University for additional analysis, according to the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee. The silver carp find triggers two more weeks of intense sampling in the area, the committee said in a press release.

White House attention to the fight against Asian carp also lagged during the prior Democratic administration, Huizenga said. “We were having problems getting Obama officials to engage,” he said.

Trump officials have told members of Congress they want to wait until the next head of the Army Corps takes office before releasing the study. But the White House still hasn’t nominated anyone for the post.

States including Michigan and Ohio want to guard the health of the Great Lakes and the sport fishing and boating industries they support from the notoriously destructive Asian carp. States such as Illinois and Indiana are concerned that structural changes at Brandon Road would disrupt the commercial barge industry moving billions of dollars’ worth of grain and other goods along the Illinois River.

Earlier this year, 16 Republican members of Congress, mostly from Illinois and Indiana, wrote to Trump asking him to hold up release of the report, saying the project would have “significant implications” for commercial vessel traffic at the Brandon Road lock and the regional economy.

“This is a vital piece of our blue economy, but this is not merely a blue highway,” said Huizenga, a GOP co-chair of the House Great Lakes Task Force.