Asian Carp: Too Little Too Late?

by Phil Anderson

“It is time that a permanent and effective solution be implemented to prevent the spread of this invasive species. The Great Lakes are the crown jewel of the Midwest, and the potential damage both environmentally and economically from Asian carp is too great to risk, which is why we have asked the corps to close the Brandon Road Lock.”   Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette 

“Whatever can go wrong will go wrong”  Murphy’s Law

Last week the Reader ran a Wisconsin Public Radio article on  Asian carp. The take away from the article is that the the politicians are, as usual, dithering. Asian carp getting into the Great Lakes is a serious problem that could result in major environmental harm. But their “leadership” consists of issuing another “resolution” expressing “concern” and promising to “move forward” by “working together” to “urge the federal government to act promptly.” In other words more meetings and hot air instead of implementing a real solution. The inevitable result will be too little, too late.

None of the politicians are talking about the only solution that will insure NO carp get into the lakes. As the Michigan Attorney General points out the only real, permanent, 100% effective solution is a solid, physical barrier. Close the shipping canal!
The proposed “solutions” will not prevent carp from reaching the Great Lakes. Even the authors of the proposal say it will only reduce the chances and delay the eventual disaster. The Corps of Engineers says without the proposed infrastructure there’s a 29% probability that the carp will be established in the Great Lakes by 2071. With the proposed $778 million package of “barriers” the Corps says the likelihood will decrease to 15 percent. A 15% chance of failure is simple unacceptable.

The Corps of Engineers latest plan relies on several barriers. These include an electric fence, a bubble barrier, a noise barrier, an engineered channel, a flushing lock at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam 27 miles SW of Chicago. The Corps claims these devises will ward off adult fish and fish eggs. All but one of these depends on electricity. This is a classic case of human hubris. We believe we are smarter than nature and that our technology will save us from the consequences of our shortsighted actions.

What can go wrong will go wrong. It is a fool’s bargain to think our technology with prevent carp from getting into the Great Lakes. There will be a power outage or a backup generator failure. There will be mechanical breakdowns. After all, this whole problem was created by 
assuming our technology is infallible. Asian carp, an exotic, highly invasive species, were imported in the 1970’s to clean up fish farm tanks. Being filter feeders they are good at removing stuff from the water. This was an effort to reduce the use of harmful chemicals. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions and it only took ONE flood to release carp into the Mississippi River. The aggressive fish spread North into the the Illinois and Des Plaines Rivers and the Illinois Waterway (shipping canal). By 1986, the Illinois River had the highest concentration of Asian carp in the world.

We also underestimate the adaptability of species. There will be carp who didn’t read the playbook. In our human hubris we do not think of nature as having variations. There will be some carp that are stronger, or smarter, or deaf, or less susceptible to noise, or electric shock, or maybe even like a bubble bath. These individuals will find ways to get around the barriers. Many species routinely adapt to environmental challenges. This is the evolutionary process and we have many examples of plants and animals adapting to our human created habitats and technologies.

Not only is the technology fallible but it is expensive. In addition to the the large installation costs, there will be ongoing operating and maintenance costs. How long will the politicians be willing to foot this annual bill?  At what point will they cut corners to save money? Will the industries that benefit from the canal be willing to pay taxes to support it? Filling in the canal is a one time cost and a permanent solution. This solution would cost much less than $778 million with no chance of the barrier failing.

Free Market Solutions? One wonders why this problem isn’t being solved by the omniscient, omnipotent free markets. One would think this is a perfect case for entrepreneurs to turn lemons into lemonade. The Chinese love to eat these carp and have shortages due to over-fishing and pollution. Why not catch the fish and ship them to China? We are good at over-fishing and extirpating other species. Why not do the same for Asian carp?

The short answer is that there are entrepreneurs trying to create carp fisheries. But the economics are not there. The prices are too low and the costs too high. Several states are encouraging carp fishing with subsidies (or contracting for carp removal). These programs are having an impact. Illinois has successfully reduced the Asian carp population in the Illinois River removing more than 1 million pounds of carp annually. But they need to remove about four times that amount to blunt the carp population. Carp are being made into fertilizer, fish meal, pet food, dumped into landfills and exported. But the domestic demand has remained thin. The reality is that it takes time to develop mature, economically viable industries. Even if economically successful, the free market solution will probably be too little too late to prevent the carp from getting into the Great Lakes.

Effective solutions are, of course, being opposed by powerful economic interests. The industries that use the waterway don’t want to change to alternative shipping options. Barges on the canal are a cheap way to ship low cost, bulk commodities. Even though barge traffic is declining there will be strong opposition to closing the waterway. 

Too Little Too Late. In June 2017 an Asian Carp was found in the Little Calumet River nine miles from Lake Michigan and beyond the existing electric fence barrier. No one knows how the fish got there. But it did. 

I rest my case.