O’Keefe’s tale raises a key message that fish biologists fear is being lost with all the focus on the Asian carp: The Chicago waterways allow many forms of life through, going both ways—from the big lake to the big river and vice versa. The zebra mussel, round goby and Eurasian ruffe all moved from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi here. And to be effective, we need a system that stops all of it, not just big fish heading to Lake Michigan. The electric barrier is too limited to achieve a comprehensive fix. Case in point: it had to be adjusted after it was built because the electric jolt was not effective on small fish, like say, juvenile Asian carp.
And the electric barrier has no effect at all on invasive molluscs larvae attached to a barge hull. Nor could it stop somethingreally small, like the deadly fish virus hemorrhagic septicemia, which was transported from the East Coast to the Great Lakes and discovered in 2006. In a kind of sick irony, life moving through the system is only a problem of late because until now the canal waters were so toxic nothing could survive the 28-mile journey.
Such concerns about all aquatic life forms explain why fish biologists are nearly unified in their belief that America must re-establish the separation between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River system that existed until the Sanitary and Ship Canal was built at the dawn of the 20th century. “But what we don’t have agreement on is how that will take place,” says Sea Grant’s Phil Moy.
Re-separating the Great Lakes system and the Mississippi system will be a monumental undertaking and the agreementthat Moy refers to is not likely to come easily or cheaply. Barge operators have raised concerns that a system would addexpense to their service. Tourist ferryboat operators worry that a barrier in the wrong place would kill their business. The Alliance for the Great Lakes, a Chicago-based Great Lakes advocacy group, is one of the only organizations to have published a rough plan for how to accomplish the holy grail of preserving both environment and business.
“This issue is not just about separating the Great Lakes and the Mississippi,” says Joel Brammeier, president of the group. “It’s about finding a better way to do business on water.” His point: there are water junctions all over the world where invasions must be stopped, and the methods developed here could be exported. “This city was built by people who looked at massive new infrastructure as a world of possibility, and that is where we are at now. Chicago knows how to think big and build big. As long as we can keep in that mindset, we can solve this problem.”
Possible solutions being discussed include gigantic mechanisms that would lift barges over a permanent barrier, or locks that always drain water back to the original basin, or transferring cargo so that barges would never move between the two water systems (the surest way to prevent transfer of organisms that hitchhike on barge hulls).
But even the most optimistic observers say it could be 15 years before massive new infrastructure solutions would be in place. In the meantime, a multi-agency task force called the Asian Carp Workgroup has published a draft strategy that employs a collection of techniques to stop the advance: poisonings, a beefed up electric barrier, acoustic bubble barriers, netting, expanded commercial fishing. (After all, if there’s one thing humans are adept at it’s driving a species to extinction when it has commercial value.)
On Monday evening, in the third week of March, the harbor of Frankfort, Michigan is virtually empty, the dozens of charter fishing boats that ply Lake Michigan during tourist season still in dry dock. Twilight reflects pale blue in the water, and the placid scene feels a universe away from the industrial river plain in Romeoville, Illinios, that’s home to the electric fish barrier. But the nearly 100 people who file into the Garden Theater this evening are acutely aware of their tiny town’s connection to that place 200 miles to the south. They fear that if the barrier fails, Asian carp have the potential to decimate the big game fish of Lake Michigan and take down the charter fishing economic pillar of this community.
Speaking tonight are fish biologist Dr. Doug Workman, state representative Dan Scripps and Derek Bailey, tribal chair of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. Beyond just explaining the issue, a goal of the evening is motivating people to spread the word and write their representatives to convince them to shut the locks in Chicago as an interim emergency measure.
By coincidence, the meeting happens on the same day the Supreme Court has again rejected Michigan’s request to force Chicago to close the locks. One point that resonates with the crowd: how can the nation be sympathetic to Chicago’s $40 million barge and ferry business while putting an estimated $7 billion Great Lakes fishery at risk?
“This isn’t about jobs versus the environment,” Scripps says. “It’s about jobs versus jobs,”—a point reinforced by the fact that the local chamber of commerce has organized the meeting. Nobody mentions that even if the locks are closed, the fish could still swim through the Little Calumet River and that President Obama’s home district would flood in the next big rain.
Bailey is the last person to speak. The youthful, soft-spoken and thoughtful tribal chair with a ponytail to his waist beginsby explaining the principle of seven generations, that decisions today should be made in the interest of children seven generations into the future. That principle has convinced the tribe to do what it can to stop the advance of the carp, he explains.
Bailey says he has an idea. He believes the Native American tribes in Michigan who signed the 1836 Treaty have a legal avenue that the states do not. In that treaty, the federal government agreed to be the trustee of natural resources for Native People. Allowing the carp to invade Lake Michigan would be a breach of that agreement. He wants to know if the community would support the tribes if they were to head down that path—tribes are cautious about suing the federal government. The people clap. It’s clear they’ll support anything that has even the remotest chance of stopping the advance of the Asian carp.
Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. [email protected]