Asian carp hasn't arrived in Great Lakes yet, but it's gobbling up food supplies along the Mississippi
Nobody knows what impact the Asian carp would have if it got into Lake Erie -- but state fisheries administrator Roger Knight is worried enough he doesn't want to find out.
Knight knows that in portions of the Mississippi River, the carp has virtually taken over, driving out other species of fish.
"I think the threat is real. In the end, no one knows what the impact would be," said Knight, fisheries program administrator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
While the Great Lakes have been home to many invasive species, the Asian carp is considered one of the biggest potential threats ever.
Environmentalists and politicians in the Great Lakes states are pressing Congress to pass a bill to strengthen an electric barrier that prevents the carp from migrating from the Mississippi to the Great Lakes. A measure to do that has passed the U.S. House and awaits final action in the U.S. Senate.
"It's a rare opportunity to keep an invasive species at bay," Knight said. "We need to seize those when they present themselves."
"Absolutely, you have to keep it out of the lakes," said Marc Gaden, spokesman for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. "Once they are there, it is usually too late to do anything."
"Everything we've seen has told us they're going to be especially damaging to the Great Lakes," Gaden said.
Asian carp were imported in the 1970s into Southern states by catfish farmers who wanted to use the carp to get rid of algae in farm ponds. Flooding allowed the fish to escape from the ponds into the Mississippi.
Carp are big fish and they "are like vacuum cleaners ... they suck up the algae," Gaden said.
By gobbling up all of the available food and reproducing rapidly, they have crowded out many of the other fish in the Mississippi, Gaden said.
The Asian carp have been moving north. They've gone up the Illinois River and threatened to invade Lake Michigan, which would provide them a route to invade the other Great Lakes, such as Lake Erie.
The Army Corps of Engineers has put up a temporary barrier on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to block the fish from getting into Lake Michigan. The barrier uses electrodes at the bottom of the canal to put out an electrical field that shocks the fish, discouraging them from going further.
The Army Corps has also partially completed work on a permanent, larger electrical barrier.
However, the temporary barrier is wearing out -- two of the 14 electrodes are useless, and the entire barrier could fail at any moment, Gaden said.
That's where Congress comes in.
A measure to rebuild the temporary barrier and complete work on the permanent barrier is contained in four measures before Congress, but the bill that's come closest to passing is the Water Resources Development Act, an "umbrella" bill that authorizes $9 million for the carp barrier and also includes numerous water-related federal programs.
The final version of the Act passed the House, with U.S. Reps. Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo, and Paul Gillmor, R-Tiffin, voting in favor. But the Senate went home for its August recess without taking action. Supporters of the carp barrier hope the Senate will take up the bill shortly after Congress reconvenes Sept. 4.
One complication is that President Bush has threatened to veto the act, complaining that it is too expensive. The Bush administration supports the carp barrier, however, and the measure passed the House with a veto-proof majority, Gaden said.
"I'm told the (act) will pass this year," said Kristy Meyer, director of clean water programs for the Ohio Environmental Council.
U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, was a member of the conference committee that wrote the act. He issued a news release in late July saying he expects the measure to pass the House and Senate soon. A spokeswoman for Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The bill has moved more quickly than Gaden expected.
Voinovich deserves much of the credit, Gaden said, because the senator has repeatedly pressed his colleagues for action.
"I appreciate the fact that he has stuck with that," he said.