Can a Lawsuit Stop the Asian Carp?

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I’ve written before about fears over the voracious Asian carp, an invasive species that has moved up the Mississippi and now seems to have made its way into the Great Lakes, where it could cause significant havoc. Scientists have been warning for months about the threat the carp—a family of freshwater fish native to China and parts of Southeast Asia—could pose to the Great Lakes where, like an impolite dinner guest, they might eat all of us out of house and home. But the crisis hit a higher note last month when fishermen discovered a live bighead carp in Lake Clumet—upstream from an electrical barrier on the Mississippi River system that was meant to keep the carp out.

Now the battle is hitting the courts. Yesterday Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Minnesota and Pennsylvania sued Washington in the federal courts, demanding stronger action to stop the Asian carp from establishing themselves in the Great Lakes. “Asian carp will kill jobs and ruin our way of life,” said Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox in a statement. “We cannot afford more bureaucratic delays—every action must be taken to protect the Great Lakes.”

The target of the suit is the Army Corps of Engineers, who operate the complex shipping locks and gates that link the Mississippi River systems and the Great Lakes. The plaintiff states want stronger physical barriers, including nets and potentially closing the locks. That’s something shipping interests in Chicago have long opposed, arguing that it would damage the regional economy. (It’s notable that Illinois was not one of the five Great Lakes states pursuing the lawsuit—and that the carp would never have been able to make it from the Mississippi to the Great Lakes without the help of humans, as the two systems are only connected by manmade canals.)

It’s not the first time the states have turned to the courts to force the federal government to crack down on the carp. Twice they’ve tried to get injunctions from the Supreme Court, but that was when there was only DNA evidence of the carp inside the Great Lakes—now they have a live, wriggling specimen. But it won’t be an easy case—Jim Farrell of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce called the lawsuit “a politically motivated filing,” and insisted the carp problem was “under control.”

Certainly the White House—which is dealing with a few crises these days—hasn’t ignored the Asian carp threat. Back in February the Administration announced a $78.5 million plan, focused on strengthening the electric barrier and using fish poison. But the five states want the process sped up. “Asian carp will kill jobs and ruin our way of life,” said Cox, a Republican who is running for governor. “We cannot afford more bureaucratic delays – emergency action must be taken to protect the Great Lakes.”

Now, since the Asian carp are fish, we could just catch them—the fishing industry, after all, is close to emptying the oceans of wild fish. Illinois recently entered into an agreement with the Chinese company Beijing Zhouchen Animal Husbandry and Big Fish River Fisheries to harvest some 30 million lbs. of carp from the state’s rivers. (Though Americans haven’t shown much inclination to eat the bony carps, they’re a staple back in China, where carp have long been raised in flooded rice paddies in some of the earliest known aquaculture.) “We believe the people of China who like to eat Asian carp will find this is the best anywhere on Earth,” Illinois Governor Pat Quinn said in a press conference om July 13. “If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em.”

Of course, Asian carp are so voracious—they can eat 40% of their body weight daily and grow as large as 100 lbs.—that trying to control their populations by fishing, should they establish themselves in the Great Lakes, is optimistic, to say the least. But if fishermen want to get a sense for what battling a carp is like, they can check out the Redneck Fishing Tournament in Bath, Illinois on August 6 and 7. Just be prepared—these fish fight back.