Uh oh. Biologists recently detected Asian Carp DNA in the waters of Lake Michigan. This invasive fish wreaks havoc on ecosystems by devouring food resources, reproducing quickly, and out competing native fish species. Growing to more than 4 feet in length and weighing over 100 pounds, they are truly a menace. Though no Asian Carp have yet been seen in the water, this is definitely not good news. It's difficult to predict how badly an Asian Carp infestation would damage Lake Michigan's ecosystem, and more broadly, that of the Great Lakes. But seeing how the Great Lakes are the largest body of fresh water on the planet, and the source of drinking water for 40 million people, Lake Michigan's ecosystem is critically important to all of us. There's also a $7 billion fishing industry at stake. How did the carp get here? It's been a several-decade swim, all the way from commercial catfish ponds in Arkansas.
The carp were originally imported in the 1970s to help control algae and crustaceans in ponds located near the Mississippi. When the mighty Miss flooded its banks in the 1990s, the fish got into the river – a virtual aquatic autobahn north toward Lake Michigan. A primary link between the Mississippi and the Great Lakes is the man made, century-old Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Not surprisingly, Asian Carp have followed this "side road" of the Mississippi towards the lake. Electric fish barriers, constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers miles from the lake, have apparently failed to stem the tide. Why not just shut off the canal? Turns out there are lot of industrial goods and materials that routinely travel to/from Chicago via this waterway: iron, gravel, and coal, to name a few. If the canal were shut down, critics argue, this would force these goods to be transported less efficiently by semi truck. Costs would go up. Roads would be more congested. Predictably, the issue is being battled in the courts. Several Great Lakes states, led by Michigan, filed suit against Illinois and others, attempting to force an immediate closure of the canal (read blogger Noah Hall's account here, which, for the curious, includes links to some of the legal briefs). With the health of Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes potentially at stake, I, for one, am willing to pay higher prices to preserve this irreplaceable resource.