Locks stay open while U.S. Supreme Court considers Asian carp lawsuit

Flying fish
The sounds of a boat motor in the water cause silver carp to jump into the air simultaneously. These fish were photographed in the Missouri River.
Photo by Jason Jenkins, University of Missouri

Shipping canals near Chicago will stay open at least another week, while the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to consider a lawsuit seeking to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

The court, which was to hold a conference Friday on the suit, is expected to take it up in closed conference on Jan. 15.

Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox filed suit shortly after Asian carp DNA was confirmed on the Lake Michigan side of an electric fish barrier designed to keep them out of the Great Lakes. The invasive carp have already moved up the Mississippi and Illinois River systems, after escaping fish farms in southern states.

These carp are known to starve out other fish, while they eat themselves into overwhelming numbers and huge size -- some 4 feet long and 100 pounds.

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In a recorded statement on his Web site, Cox described Asian carp as a significant threat to the region's $7 billion commercial and sport fishing industry.

"If it gets in the Great Lakes, the Asian carp could destroy the Michigan ecology; destroy the Great Lakes, and hurt our economy," Cox said.

The suit seeks to immediately close specific locks, create new barriers and action to permanently separate the carp-infested waterways from the Great Lakes.

Bighead carp
In this Thursday, Jan. 5, 2006 file photo, a bighead carp, front, a species of the Asian carp, swims in a new exhibit that highlights plants and animals that eat or compete with Great Lakes native species, at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium.
M. Spencer Green/Associated Press

It also asks the Supreme Court to revisit an old case related to the canals. Michigan's bid is joined by Minnesota, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin. Officials have asked Canada's Ontario province to join the suit.

Illinois, President Obama's home state, is fighting the lawsuit. The Obama Administration is siding with Illinois on the grounds that immediate action is not necessary and may not succeed in keeping the fish away.

The federal response described as speculative arguments that the carp are poised to invade the lake. But Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson says the federal stand is problematic.

"The problem with that is the carp are coming ever closer to the Great Lakes," Swanson said. "The DNA testing has shown that Asian carp DNA is simply a few miles from the Great Lakes, and I think everybody who's looked at it pretty much is in consensus that if they establish a breeding population in the Great Lakes we're in real trouble, and that that would be a calamity."

The administration's response is drawing fire as politically motivated.

Jennifer Nalbone, a representative of Great Lakes United, a coalition dedicated to protecting the lakes and Saint Lawrence River ecosystem, calls it frustrating.

"If the Obama Administration is not supportive of Michigan's attempt to address the Asian carp situation, what is their solution?" asked Nalbone, the group's campaign director for navigation and invasive species. "And that's what we're most frustrated about. If they're going to oppose the case going to the Supreme Court, how is the Asian carp problem going to be solved?"

Michigan contends it will suffer a serious blow to its economy if the fishery collapses, while Chicago-area shipping interests that rely on the canals argue they will bear a similar hardship if they close.

Closing the canals would block well over a billion dollars worth of goods each year, said Anne Davis Burns, vice president of public affairs and communications for the American Waterways Operators. The group is a national trade association for the American tugboat, tow-boat and barge industry.

"We see that as a potential man-made disaster for the Great Lakes and the Midwest region," Burns said.

She said the canals generate $30 million a year in revenue to Illinois, while carrying products the upper Midwest needs -- including road salt for the winter months, home heating oil and aircraft de-icing fluid.

"All those things depend heavily on the towing industry," Burns said, adding that there is no viable alternative to the region's barge traffic.

But for Minnesota officials, the costs of shipping can't compare to the permanent harm to the lakes.

"It's not about money for the Great Lakes states like Minnesota," Swanson said. "It's about preserving a natural resource, and making sure it doesn't get contaminated."

Swanson said the responses from the State of Illinois and the U.S. Solicitor General were extensive and the justices likely want additional time to review all the material.

The Supreme Court could issue a temporary injunction to close the waterway, schedule open hearings or dismiss the suit.