Update: Looming lawsuit to determine the fate of the Great Lakes

Bighead and Silver carp, those insatiable, invasive fish that have been swimming steadily towards the Great Lakes for the last two decades, are finally generating some national attention. On Tuesday, January 5, the Obama administration announced its opposition to the lawsuit filed with the Supreme Court by Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox against the state of Illinois on December 21, 2009. The lawsuit was filed in response to the imminent threat of Asian Carp entering the Great Lakes through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. It asks for an injunction to force Illinois to immediately close two locks on the canal, in an effort to keep the carp from making their way into Lake Michigan. Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New York, and the Province of Ontario have all come out in support of Michigan’s request to close the canal.

The lawsuit filed by Cox asks for: immediate closure of the locks in Illinois, new barriers to prevent carp from entering the lake at other sites, and ideally, permanent separation of the Chicago waterway system from the Great Lakes. U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan advised the Supreme Court to dismiss the case, saying that “the best information available today does not yet justify the dramatic steps Michigan demands.” Opposition to the lawsuit (which includes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Chicago) cite concerns over public safety (the Coast Guard uses the locks for access during recreational boating emergencies), and the effects the closures would have on the cargo shipping industry in the state of Illinois. They are arguing that there is not enough evidence that the carp pose an imminent danger to Lake Michigan, and that further studies need to be conducted to determine the best course of action. Unfortunately, it could take the Army Corps years to find a permanent and effective solution to this dilemma, and we no longer have the luxury of time. The carp are literally swimming around our doorstep.

The federal administration’s public opposition to the lock closures comes as a great blow to the Great Lakes states that have come together in an effort to protect the lakes from carp. Although the carp have been decimating native fish populations, devastating recreational fisheries, and injuring unwitting fishermen for the last few decades, this Supreme Court lawsuit has brought the issue to the national attention, and will have serious economic and political implications for Great Lakes states.

• It pits the $30 million a year barge shipping industry, which uses the canals to deliver products to the Upper Midwest, against the $7 billion a year fishing industry in the Great Lakes. It also pits the economic concerns of Illinois against the ecological concerns of the entire Great Lakes region.

• It threatens the delicate alliance between the governments of Great Lakes states. In 2008, all of the states involved in this lawsuit, including Illinois, signed the Great Lakes Compact, committing to the protection of Great Lakes water. This is the first real test of that compact, and already the economic concerns of individual states have taken priority over concerns about the health of the lakes.

The very real threat the Asian carp pose to the Great Lakes will challenge politicians at both the state and national level to push aside their political interests for a moment, and consider the ecological and economical havoc the carp would wreck on the Great Lakes, and all adjacent waterways, should these fish establish populations here.

Click here to view stories about the destructive Asian Carp as they move up the Mississippi River.