It would be funny, if it weren’t so serious. Boating in the Chicago area finds itself threatened . . . by a fish!
Asian carp are mean critters. They grow to 4 feet long, weigh in at 100 pounds and the engine vibrations from passing power boats can cause them to leap into the air, sometimes landing in boats injuring boaters and damaging vessels.
They reportedly escaped from Southern fish farms into the Mississippi River during 1990s flooding. They have migrated northward ever since, reaching into the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal just south of the city and very close to where the Chicago River meets Lake Michigan. The real fear is that if these carp get into Lake Michigan, and eventually the rest of the Great Lakes, they could fundamentally change the Great Lakes ecosystem by consuming the plankton at the bottom of the food chain, thus wiping out the native fish and a $7 billion annual Great Lakes sport and commercial fishery. That’s because these carp voraciously consume up to 40 percent of their body weight in plankton daily!
Thus far, the carp’s march north has been halted by an “electric barrier” installed in the Chicago canal by the Army Corps of Engineers and designed to stop the fish with a non-lethal shock. But, last month, officials noted that DNA samples of the Asian carp recently were found between the electric barrier and Lake Michigan, albeit no fish had yet to be spotted in that area. In addition, the Corps had to turn the barrier off recently for maintenance.
It all set off a series of events and a potential legal battle between Illinois and a coalition led by Michigan that includes Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota and New York. Michigan has filed suit to permanently close the locks at Chicago that separate the Chicago River from Lake Michigan, claiming they are the last barrier. Some environmental groups are also pushing federal officials to close the three locks in Chicago.
Chicago area boaters are caught in the cross fire. Certainly no one wants the Asian carp to get into the Great Lakes. On the other hand, the river system is an integral part of boating in Chicago. It’s used recreationally from April to November. Important dealers, marinas and boatyards are located along the waterways and can only be reached from or to Lake Michigan by locking through at Chicago. Thousands of Chicago boaters must lock through to reach winter storage yards or in spring the extensive harbors along Chicago’s lakefront. And, it’s the only water route out of the western Great Lakes to get to or from the Mississippi and points south.
The Great Lakes Boating Federation is calling for a public hearing during which all stakeholders, recreational and commercial, using the Chicago Locks could be heard. GLBF estimates well over 7,000 Chicago area boaters would be adversely affected by any permanent closing of the locks.
“If we can send men to the moon, create the Internet, and grow human organs, we can certainly deal with a fish in better ways than just closing some locks and hurting good boat dealers, marina operators and thousands of boating families,” says Ned Dikmen, GLBF chairman. He’s right! All boating interests in the western Great Lakes should be echoing GLBF’s call for hearings.
To be silent on this issue shouldn’t be an option since both Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. EPA officials say they are looking at all possibilities and have not made any decision about closing the locks.