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Asian carp have been making their way up the Mississippi River system for years after escaping from fish farms and wastewater treatment ponds in the southern U.S.They’re knocking on the door of the Great Lakes, and a number of people are concerned about what could happen if carp become established in the region.In this five-part series, we’ll take a look at what officials are trying to do to keep the fish out, what might happen if carp get in, and why some people want to turn carp into a business opportunity.

Carping Criticism

Remember the Asian carp, which migrated up the Mississippi, into the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and which experts feared were about to get into Lake Michigan?

That’s where things stood when I first talked about this issue here more than fifteen months ago. Since then, traces of carp DNA has been found in Lake Michigan, though there is no evidence that a permanent breeding population has been established there.

But if that ever happens, it will be an environmental disaster of unimaginable proportions. The carp are huge awful ugly fish. One variety tends to jump and have broken water skiers’ jaws.

Worse, they suck up virtually all the available food supply, which means they starve out other more desirable fish. Once they get firmly established, they are virtually impossible to eradicate, which would mean farewell to the sport and commercial fishing industries.

Plus, that would play havoc with the ecology of the lakes and could cost the economy, depending on whose estimates you believe,  between one and seven billion dollars a year.

I wondered what the government has been doing about this, and last week talked to a highly respected environmental journalist about this. The Toledo Blade’s Tom Henry has been following the carp story for years. He has won numerous awards for his reporting, and is on the Society of Environmental Journalists board.

When I asked him what our government was doing to try to protect our lakes, his answer was “dithering.” Canada, he told me, was at least trying. This month alone, their government has levied two huge fines against two firms caught trying to smuggle live Asian carp into Canada, in one case, apparently to raise and breed.

That’s how all the trouble is thought to have started in the first place, when a flood in Arkansas washed some carp from a fish farm into the Mississippi River almost twenty years ago. Since then, they’ve been migrating north, and the federal response, Tom Henry said, has been seventeen years of indefensible inaction. Last year, the governors of most of the Great Lakes states attempted to get Illinois to close the canal.

But Illinois refused, saying it would be too devastating to Chicago’s economy, and the President and the Supreme Court refused to overturn that decision.

What’s happening now? Well, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has given itself another four years to  do an “interbasin study,” of the problem and come up with a plan.

By then, the carp may be all the way to Vermont. The key danger zone, Henry tells me, is Western Lake Erie, the area from Toledo stretching on out past Port Clinton and Sandusky.

That is the anchor spot of the fishing industry and, sadly, also the area in which the carp might find it easiest to establish themselves. But when the Corps came to take public comment recently, where did they go? Ann Arbor.

Which, if they didn’t notice, isn’t on the lakes at all. Senator Debbie Stabenow has introduced a bill to get thing moving faster. “We’re anxious to light a fire under the Army Corps of Engineers,” she said.  It would be nice if that happened before muddy-tasting Asian carp are the only things we have left to cook.