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Carp Press Conference at Shedd Aquarium

C.J. Holtzman/MEDILL

The Shedd Aquarium's exhibit on invasive species provided the perfect backdrop for Illinois politicians to address the Asian carp invasion and the lawsuit that pits the state against its neighbors.

Carp threaten Chicago shipping: Illinois politicians unite over lawsuit

by Leslie Streicher
Jan 12, 2010

While Chicago awaits a U.S. Supreme Court decision on the carp invasion of Lake Michigan, politicians met at the Shedd Aquarium Tuesday morning to diffuse the threat of the lawsuit before the court.   

Illinois officials are reaching out to several states that joined the suit filed by Michigan officials. Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin and New York are now party to the legal action seeking to close Chicago’s shipping locks that connect the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to the lake.

The consensus at the Shedd press conference was that states should work together to solve the carp dilemma and not single out Illinois as the villain.  

“We are all in this problem together and we should all be part of the solution,” said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., extended a more formal invitation to fellow states when he said: “Let’s not meet in the courtroom. Let’s meet in the halls of  Congress.” 

Durbin said other states should be aware that carp research and prevention in Illinois is not new and lock closure will create more problems than solutions. 

“We have been pursuing these species for the last 10 years with federal and state funding,” he said.  “We want to take the next step with a commonsense, reasonable approach to solving the problem.” 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will release a detailed study on eDNA test results conducted in the waterways tonight. The testing identifies if any carp could be living in the river. 

While research shows just how destructive carp can be in Midwestern waterways, some officials believe there is no immediate urgency to the threat. 

This comes in the wake of the largest fish kill in Illinois history when wildlife officials poisoned part of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal with rotenone. Out of the dead 800 fish collected, only one was an Asian carp.  

Richard Lanyon, executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, said while the poisoning yielded regrettable results, the outcome points to a greater issue at hand. 

“No one has seen the Asian carp [in the lake],” Lanyon said.

Asian carp, 100 pound fish with voracious appetites and a propensity to leap out of the water, seem like they would be easy to spot in a narrow water channel like the sanitary and ship canal. But, according to Lanyon, the fish remain unobserved.

Environmental DNA testing, developed by the University of Notre Dame and sponsored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, reveals carp may have reached the Calumet-Sag Channel, which leads them right to Lake Michigan’s front door.   

However, a netting operation to confirm the presence of carp in the channel came up empty handed.  Lanyon said Asian carp are a matter of concern, but the threat is not as bad as people think.

“The degree to which it is a matter of concern is overblown,” he said.  

Little is known about how carp will affect the ecology of the Great Lakes and much of the science behind the proposed threat is based on studies done in the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers.   

Libby Hill, the author of “The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History,” said Asian carp are bottom-dwelling river fish and researchers are unsure if they will even find Lake Michigan habitable.  

“Nobody knows if they can get past the barrier and even survive in the lakes,” she said. 

Illinois agency reports predict irreparable damage, however, if Asian carp reach the lake through the locks.  Scientists believe the carp's voracious appetite will dominate the food supply and cause other fish to die. 

Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox filed the suit in the Supreme Court on Dec. 21 to force Illinois to close Chicago-area locks and waterways that connect Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River system. 

The lawsuit makes the case that if carp are allowed to pass through the canal into the lake they will destroy the $7 billion-a-year sport fishing industry as well as decrease $16 billion-a-year in recreation boating revenue.

Lanyon, who filed a response in the Supreme Court Jan. 5, said Michigan’s fear is unsupported. Closing the locks threatens Chicago's shipping industry and could expose the city to flooding after every major rainfall. Chicago opens the locks after heavy rains when storm water is released through the O’Brien, Chicago River Controlling Works and Wilmette Pumping Station locks into Lake Michigan.

If the locks are permanently closed the water will have nowhere to go but into the city and thousands of basements. 

“The flooding is the biggest issue,” he said.  “The problem is that it is not fully understood if these carp will damage the ecology of the Great Lakes, and I think it’s a big stretch that it will adversely affect the lake.”   

“[Michigan] trivializes the matter by not even thinking about the impact of flooding on the city,” Lanyon said. 
Nick Deleeuw, a spokesman for Cox, said the risk the carp pose to the economy far outweigh Chicago flooding concerns. 

“The locks are rarely used for flood control,” he said. “Eight hundred Michigan jobs and a $7 billion fishing industry are tied to the lake, and anytime you are dealing with numbers like this it becomes a public safety concern.” 

The Supreme Court will address the case Friday, Jan. 15.