Finally, the states are getting serious about Asian carp

Dave Dempsey
Dave Dempsey is communications director for Conservation Minnesota.
Photo Courtesy of Dave Dempsey

It's surely a good thing that Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson has now signed the state onto a lawsuit to keep Asian carp out of Lake Superior. But if the voracious, flopping, invasive aquatic beasts had their own political action committee, would Minnesota and the rest of the Great Lakes states still be scrambling to take on Illinois in court?

The lesson of Great Lakes protection over the last generation suggests not. The stirring pronouncements of elected officials about the majesty of the lakes are generally followed by actions which compromise that majesty. Concerned Minnesotans are going to have to make the difference if the Great Lakes are to fare any better over the next two decades.

The five Great Lakes and their tributary waters are worth the hyperbole as well as the tough action. They comprise a full 18 percent of the world's available fresh water (10 percent of the global total in Lake Superior alone). The lakes support hundreds of native fish and wildlife species and generate billions of dollars of economic activity each year, in everything from sportfishing and tourism to manufacturing (which requires abundant water supplies).

Minnesota is the headwaters state not only for the Mississippi River, but also for the Great Lakes watershed. A drop of rain falling in Duluth Harbor will theoretically end its journey to the sea a few hundred years later after traversing a 2,300-mile route. So we have a special responsibility to set an example. Swanson's action is consistent with that.

The Asian carp threat is a genuine one. Intentionally introduced to fish farms in the lower Mississippi River in the 1970s, two species of carp escaped confinement during floods. They've been swimming north ever since. Considering that they can grow to 80 pounds and six feet in length and consume 40 percent of their body weight each day, they may well displace large desirable sport fish like lake trout and introduced salmon and jolt the already troubled Great Lakes into an ecosystem collapse.

The reason Asian carp may enter the Great Lakes, which were naturally separate from the Mississippi River, is engineering. When Chicago's stinking sewage flowed into Lake Michigan in the late 1800s, it killed people who drank water from the city's offshore intake and contracted typhoid and cholera. In 1900, Illinois -- over the objections of the other seven Great Lakes states -- blasted a connection between the Chicago River and the Mississippi River, reversed the flow of the former, and dispatched the sewage toward St. Louis. Related improvements turned the canal into a profitable system for barge shipments of grain and other commodities.

So, while Minnesota is signing onto a lawsuit demanding that Illinois at least temporarily block the Chicago River connection to keep the carp out, shipping interests in Illinois are responding that such a move would be a killer for the Midwest economy. The Supreme Court is expected to consider the matter Friday. (No one has yet quantified the immense cost to the regional economy if Asian carp become the dominant Great Lakes fish.)

It's typical. The Great Lakes states ratified a regional compact in 2008 that they said would end the threat of water exports that could drain the Lakes. But suburbs of Milwaukee are already plotting to use the pact to get Lake Michigan water to fuel suburban sprawl. The compact also allows unlimited sales of Great Lakes water as a product -- even if it goes to the same Asia that gave us the carp.

And let's not forget that the even bigger source of Great Lakes invasive fish, ballast water of oceangoing ships, has been poorly controlled for decades. We've known it's a problem for over 20 years but the shipping industry has scared away politicians from cracking down. Minnesota's own relatively weak ballast water rules were only issued in 2008 -- and there are 160 or more invasive species in the Great Lakes, many of the most recent from the excreta of ships.

So while citizens can take heart from the action of Minnesota in joining forces to stop Asian carp, let's not forget that the carp threat from the Chicago River connection has been known for a decade. But until the fish were lapping at the door of the Great Lakes, the states felt no urgency to go after Illinois.

In the end, if we want to protect the Great Lakes, citizens will have to do the job -- by holding elected officials who talk a good game to their word.

Dave Dempsey, an author and former member of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, is communications director for Conservation Minnesota, which describes its mission as "to turn our shared conservation values into state priorities and provide you with the information you need to make decisions for your family, community and future."