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Fed. officials plan stepped-up fight against Asian carp

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Federal officials promised a stepped-up fight Thursday to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes by better tracking their movements, blocking potential migration pathways and killing any that manage to evade a network of new and improved barriers.

      A $47 million battle plan for 2011 calls for refining technologies that detect the presence of Asian carp by identifying their DNA in water samples, and for developing better means of trapping, netting or starving carp already in waterways that lead to the lakes. It also pledges to continue initiatives begun this year, such as researching ways to prevent the unwanted fish from breeding.

      "The Obama administration has taken an aggressive, unprecedented approach to protect our Great Lakes and the communities and economies that depend on them from the threat of Asian carp," said John Goss, the White House Council on Environmental Quality's carp program director.

      Bighead and silver carp imported from Asia have moved up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers and have infested Chicago-area waterways that lead to Lake Michigan. Scientists say the voracious carp, which feed on plankton that forms the base of the aquatic food chain, could crowd out competitors and damage the $7 billion Great Lakes fishing industry.

      The administration this year finished work on a third electronic fish barrier on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. It also erected fences to prevent the carp from reaching the canal through the nearby Des Plaines River, and to close off a potential path to Lake Erie from the Wabash River near Fort Wayne, Ind.

      The updated plan promises more such efforts, including evaluations of 18 other spots around the region that offer potential openings between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds for invasive species. They range from the Swan River in Itasca, Minn., to East Mud Lake in Chautauqua, N.Y.

      But it doesn't call for closing shipping locks on Chicago-area rivers, a step sought by five Great Lakes states in a lawsuit against the administration. U.S. District Judge Robert Dow this month refused to order the locks closed temporarily while the suit by Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania goes forward.

      Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox said Thursday he would appeal the ruling to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

      "Until the federal government takes effective action, Michigan and our Great Lakes partners will take full advantage of every opportunity we have to ensure our livelihood is not destroyed by Asian carp," Cox said.

      Illinois officials and business interests say lock closure wouldn't necessarily stop the carp but would disrupt shipping and hammer the Chicago economy.

      The 2011 federal plan delays the scheduled completion of an Army Corps of Engineers study of long-range methods for thwarting species invasions, possibly including a cutoff of hydrological linkages between the Great Lakes and Mississippi basins, which environmentalists say is the only foolproof solution.

      The administration's initial strategy released last February called for finishing the study in 2012, but the revised date is 2015. Ernest Drott, Asian carp program manager for the Corps, said it would take longer than originally thought to conduct a thorough review that complies with federal law. Even then, he acknowledged it might not produce a plan guaranteed to thwart species invasions.

      "I'm not sure that technology is available that would 100 percent prevent or stop any invasive species from crossing the boundary," Drott said in a phone conference with reporters.

      The Natural Resources Defense Council recently proposed "hydrological separation" of the two watersheds by placing dams and pumps in the Chicago waterways.

      "It can be done relatively quickly with off-the-shelf technology," said Thom Cmar, an attorney with the group. "It's troubling that they continue to rely on more study when it's clear that what's really needed is just the political will to move forward."

      A major focus in 2011 will be environmental DNA, also known as "eDNA" - genetic markers on fish scales and bodily wastes. Over the past years, biologists have reported detecting Asian carp eDNA in numerous spots beyond the electronic barriers, suggesting a full-scale infestation of Lake Michigan may be imminent. The technique was developed by scientists with the University of Notre Dame and The Nature Conservancy.

      The administration plans to expand a research laboratory at LaCross, Wis., to allow more eDNA testing across the lakes, and to develop quicker methods of pinpointing carp locations through genetic markers.

      Mark Biel, chairman of a Chicago business group called UnLock Our Jobs, praised most of the plan but questioned its reliance on eDNA, which his group considers unreliable.

      "It has not been peer-tested and - even further - has been seriously questioned by many in the scientific community," Biel said.

      (Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)