Michigan’s attorney general announced a lawsuit Monday asking the U.S. Supreme Court to cut off a Chicago-area canal system that could allow invasive Asian carp to enter the Great Lakes.
Meanwhile, a group of Minnesota legislators says officials here must take “immediate action” to prevent the voracious invaders from devastating this state’s waterways and native fish populations.
“We’ve got to get moving on this,” said Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul. “We know that these fish are a problem, and we know that they’re moving here.”
Asian carp were imported in the 1970s to help control plankton levels in aquaculture ponds. In the 1980s they escaped into open waters in southern states, and since then they’ve been migrating north up the Mississippi River. The invasive fish have disrupted ecosystems in their wake, swallowing up all the tiny nutrients that native mussels and fish larvae depend on to survive. Their appetites have marginalized other fish species in the Illinois and Missouri rivers, for example.
Rep. Hanson is one of about 20 legislators who signed a letter to the governor and attorney general this month asking them to consider joining Michigan in its legal actions to close the Chicago canal locks.
The canal system allows barges to move between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, and an electrical barrier installed in 2004 is meant to make sure Asian carp can’t do the same. However, wildlife officials were forced to poison one of the canals earlier this month after Asian carp DNA was detected past the barrier and just six miles upstream from Lake Michigan. Michigan officials now believe the canal system poses too great a risk to the Great Lakes and its fisheries.
In addition to exploring legal action, the legislators’ letter says Minnesota officials should aggressively enforce invasive species rules, urge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete a second carp barrier, and play a lead role in collaborating with other Great Lakes states on the issue.
Hitting a wall?
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has done some this already. The department’s invasive species program participates in regional conferences and contributed $67,000 toward the construction of the Chicago canal barrier. It co-funded a 2004 study (PDF) with Wisconsin on the feasibility of a carp barrier in the Upper Mississippi River, and then helped lobby federal officials to authorize and fund such a project.
But the state’s efforts to install an Asian carp barrier in the Mississippi River have largely stalled in recent years, even as the fish have been reported as far north as Lake Pepin.
The DNR blames the lack of progress on a federal funding shortfall, but Rep. Hansen said that doesn’t explain why the department hasn’t spent $500,000 allocated to it in the 2008 bonding bill for design and pre-design of an Asian carp barrier.
“That passed in the spring of ’08, and it’s now December of ’09,” said Hansen, who suspects some DNR officials believe it’s inevitable the carp will reach Minnesota’s waters, and that subsequently it’s not worth dedicating resources to try and stop them. Hansen said there will likely be a hearing early next year to ask why the bonding money isn’t being spent. “If they come back and say we haven’t spent a dollar, we just don’t think you can do it, was that a predetermined conclusion?”
Luke Skinner, supervisor for the DNR’s invasive species program, said there is debate about a barrier’s effectiveness, as well as its possible impact on native fish species. That conversation, however, is not the reason more progress hasn’t been made on a Mississippi River carp barrier, he said.
The state aggressively lobbied Congress for river barrier funding a few years ago in an effort that included a DVD video pitch from the governor and DNR commissioner. Congress bit, authorizing the Army Corps in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act to install a barrier on the river. The same Congress, however, failed to allocated funding for the project, and that’s been the reason for the delay ever since, Skinner said.
“These waters are Coast Guard navigable waters, which gives the Corps of Engineers the authority to manage those systems,” Skinner said. “Until they step up to the plate, there’s not much we can do because they have the authority to manage the river.”
Skinner said the DNR has discussed the bonding money with Army Corps officials, but the federal agency said it can’t begin a project until it has funding from Congress. (An Army Corps spokeswoman confirmed the DNR’s account about the project’s funding status, but an official was not available to comment further on the situation.)
“We look at this as a national issue as much as it is a Minnesota issue. We really need that partnership with the Corps of Engineers and others in order to make this happen,” said Skinner.
A 2007 DNR report (PDF) requested by the Legislature was pessimistic about the state’s chances for keeping Asian carp out of its waters.
“Preventing the introduction of Asian carp into Minnesota waters is a daunting challenge and unlikely to be successful over the long-term,” the report said. “Prevention efforts, however, have the potential to slow or delay the introduction of Asian carp.”
Asian carp have been caught in Minnesota waters only a handful of times. A bighead Asian carp was caught in the St. Croix River in 1996. At least two more bighead Asian carp have been pulled from Lake Pepin, including a 39-inch, 29-pound fish in 2007. A commercial fisherman caught an Asian grass carp in the St. Croix River in 2006. Currently, no known populations of Asian carp have established themselves within the state, although monitoring efforts are not comprehensive.
Scientists need time to assess the threat, and that’s why the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy also supports closing the Chicago canal locks, at least temporarily, said staff attorney Matt Norton. The inconvenience to the shipping industry could be easily reversed if researchers find the lock closure isn’t necessary for containing the fish. “It’s not reversible once Asian carp have invaded the Great Lakes,” Norton said.
“There’s a lot at stake, people’s way of life and quality of life, which depend on these ecosystems,” Norton said. “We should be asking and expecting the DNR to do what’s necessary and protective of our natural resources,” Norton said.
Rep. Hansen said he understands budgets are tight and the department has several priorities, even just within aquatic invasive species, where the DNR is also battling zebra mussels and Eurasian milfoil. The window of opportunity is closing, he said, and he worries if Minnesota doesn’t act quickly it may end wind up in the same position as officials in Chicago: reacting to an emergency rather than planning for a problem.
“If we had a chemical spill, we would have build barriers to try to contain it, to try to prevent contamination of our water,” Hansen said. “But with this, we’re saying its inevitable.”