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White House Asian carp director hopeful for solution

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Asian carp
This early Dec. 2009 photo shows Illinois River silver carp jump out of the water after being disturbed by sounds of watercraft. Many fear that the Asian carp, which can reach 4 feet long and weigh up to 100 pounds, will wreak havoc, not by attacking native fish, but starving them out by gobbling up plankton.
AP Photo/Illinois River Biological Station via the Detroit free Press, Nerissa Michaels

The man President Barack Obama has charged with managing the Asian carp threat is hearing criticism that the government is not moving fast enough to prevent the invasive fish from infiltrating the Great Lakes.

John Goss, Asian carp director for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, is in the midst of 12 public meetings scheduled around the Great Lakes region to discuss the federal strategy.

Asian species known as bighead and silver carp have migrated up the Illinois River.  They are being stopped from entering Lake Michigan by an electric barrier 25 miles south of Chicago.  

Biologists have warned that if they reach the Great Lakes they could starve out other fish and harm the eco-system.

Goss spoke Thursday with MPR's All Things Considered.

Tom Crann: What has been the number one issue you've been hearing in these public meetings?

John Goss: The public absolutely understands the threat of Asian carp to our native fish populations in the Great Lakes. They are deeply concerned that federal, state and local government must focus and must act to stop this invasion of Asian carp.

Crann: In broad terms, how does the administration plan to prevent further Asian Carp migration?

Goss: In the short term actions we are running electrical barriers in the Chicago waterway system that are holding carp back in the Illinois River, so that is keeping the from getting up to Lake Michigan. 

Also, we've created some fish barrier fences in areas that flood (possible pathways to getting around the barrier), and we've looked across all of the states from New York to Minnesota and found about 18 points where headwaters of Mississippi River tributaries, Ohio tributaries intersect sometimes at flood stage with Great Lakes drainage areas. 

Those have been evaluated this year and we're moving quickly to close all of those pathways. That's buying us some time while we work on a permanent solution.

Crann: I've read about the research going on, and some things I've read say the timetable is 2015 for a report on what to do. Is that still it, and is that fast enough?

Goss: The plan that the Army Corps of Engineers has created is for a comprehensive and very thorough analysis of the options for a permanent solution to keeping not just Asian carp, but all aquatic invasive species from moving from the Great Lakes to the rivers or the rivers to the Great Lakes, 

So it's a large charge, and the Corps process for that will not have a final recommendation until about 2014. There will be interim products from that study. There will be significant points in the next three years in which we will have information back out to talk to the public about in terms of what the options are for creating this permanent block.

Crann: What kind of intermediate products are we talking about?

Goss: What species blocks could be used in the ship canals, what would be effective ways to stop all species from moving through the Chicago ship canal area. Also, some of the engineering work and some of the cost-benefit analysis of possible changes in the transportation network around Chicago that would relieve the need to keep the barge traffic moving through there would be another possibility.

Crann: Are you confident a permanent solution can be found?

Goss: In the past, everyone in the Great Lakes has had to live with wave after wave of invasive species. We have an opportunity to stop the Asian carp now and we are aggressively pursuing that. I believe it will be successful and that we will find a permanent way to stop the transfer of species from the lakes to the rivers and from the rivers to our Great Lakes. 

(Interview transcribed by MPR News reporter Elizabeth Dunbar.)