Budget Cuts Could Hinder Efforts to Keep Asian Carp Out of Great Lakes

Invasive species remain a huge threat to the ecology and $7 billion fishing industry in the Great Lakes. A program to harvest one of the most aggressive invasive species, the Asian carp, has produced results. But that program is now threatened by proposed cuts to the budget of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In addition, a long-awaited report from the Army Corps of Engineers looking at options for a permanent solution to keeping Asian carp out of Lake Michigan has been delayed.

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Elizabeth Brackett: The Asian carp roundup was a success: 7,000 pounds of the invasive species were taken out of a small lake that leads in to the Illinois River near Morris, Illinois.

(Evan Garcia / Chicago Tonight)(Evan Garcia / Chicago Tonight)

Kevin Irons: We went this morning with all these boats and made noise and drove the fish out, like herding cattle.

Brackett: The catch was the result of two weeks’ worth of strategically placing nets in the water and driving the fish toward the final vertical net, or seine.

Irons: It’s taking advantage of the fish’s behavior. They want to flee from sound and we try to predict where they want to go in the lake. So we work with them and encourage them to go in a location where they’re vulnerable for capture.

Brackett: Several of the boats used underwater speakers to drive the fish into the seine net.

Irons: You can hear that sound, that’s 150 decibels worth of complex noise that’s being broadcast. What that’s trying to do is make sure the fish are moving away from this location into the seine.

Brackett: Asian carp that manage to stay out of the large nets are caught in smaller gill nets. These toothless plankton-eaters are voracious feeders, depleting the water of food needed by native fish. That’s one reason they are such a threat to the Great Lakes. The fast-growing fish eat up to 20 percent of their body weight a day and can grow to over 100 pounds.

Wow it’s heavy. But … it’s not as scary as I thought it would be because you can put your hand down its mouth and it won’t chomp. OK, goodbye fish.

Irons says this herding method is very effective and that’s why he went halfway around the world to learn how to do it.

Irons: This method is a Chinese method where they’ve been harvesting these Asian carp for thousands of years.

Brackett: Over the two-week period the nets were in the lake, 75,000 pounds of Asian carp were removed. Native fish scooped up in the nets were tossed back into the water. The carp are sent to processing plants and turned into everything from organic fertilizer to high-quality dog treats. Irons says fish harvesting has kept Asian carp away from Lake Michigan.

Irons: Overall we’ve reduced this population by 57 percent in mass, and at the leading edge, which is Dresden Island Pool, that population is down 68 percent since we started fishing in 2012.

Brackett: But now this fish harvesting program that has taken 6 million tons of Asian carp out of the Illinois River since 2010 could be in jeopardy.

The program is funded by the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The $300 million-a-year EPA program is completely eliminated from the proposed Trump administration budget.

Irons: Right now that would cut off all these efforts.

Brackett: The proposed EPA cuts would not only hurt the effort to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes, the cuts could also devastate the progress made in cleaning up the lakes, says Congressman Mike Quigley.

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, 5th District-Ill.: This is an extraordinary economic and environmental asset that we have, and we only have one chance to protect it. If you’re cutting off the primary funding source that is your toolbox to save that resource and to maintain that resource, it’s really foolish financially.

Brackett: Asian carp were first found in the Mississippi river in 1975 and by 2011 had spread all the way to the Great Lakes. The easiest access route to Lake Michigan is up the Illinois River, through the Sanitary and Ship Canal to the Chicago River. Much of the $388 million spent by the Obama administration to stop Asian carp, including electric barriers, has been spent along this route.

So far, no Asian carp have been found beyond this lock here at Brandon Road in Joliet. Two years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers began a study trying to find different ways to make sure that no Asian carp get through this lock or go further upstream, on the way to Lake Michigan.

The Brandon Road Lock and Dam is a natural place to try and block the upstream movement of the Asian carp. The fish could not make it over the dam on the east side of the river and structures could be put in place to prevent them from getting through the lock. In 2015 the Army Corps was funded to evaluate the engineering needed to stop the Asian carp.

The report was scheduled for release Feb. 28. But after 16 Republican congressman protested, citing concerns over the impact on commercial shipping, the report was put on hold by the Army Corps. Congressman Quigley says he was stunned by the delay.

Quigley: It’s sort of Trump-like to delay or prevent analysis – engineering and scientific analysis – before we make a policy decision. We’re flying blind here. This study is the definitive analysis of what works, what keeps invasive species from coming up the Chicago waterways into the Great Lakes.

Brackett: Commercial shippers move more than $28 billion worth of products along Chicago-area waterways, accounting for 1.7 million jobs, says Illinois Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti. She says the Army Corps draft report does not consider the impact on the shipping industry.

Illinois Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti: I’ve been in touch with the Army Corps of Engineers, and I’ve asked them whether they have taken into account not only the environmental perspective, but also the perspective upon commerce, upon trade, and a lot of other aspects. And they have not.

Brackett: Sanguinetti says she’s learned the Brandon Road project could cost Illinois as much as $90 million, plus $8 to $10 million for operating and maintenance costs. Citing the success of fish harvesting, she questions the need for the project.

Sanguinetti: We’ve done a fine job over the last 25 years in keeping them out of Lake Michigan. I’m beholden to the taxpayers of the state of Illinois. If I’m going to saddle them with a debt of $90 million plus an additional $10 million per year for operations and maintenance, then I need to tell them that it was necessary because this is what science is telling us. However, that is not what science is telling us.

Brackett: Kevin irons agrees.

Brackett (to Irons): Do you think that there does need to be something done at Brandon Road?

Irons: We do not see fish at Brandon Road. So we have population assessments going on all the time, we don’t catch them there, so we have concerns about putting additional measures there because if you block Asian carp you block all fish and that’s a concern.

Brackett: But the Alliance for the Great Lakes’ Joel Brammeier says the threat to the Great Lakes remains.

Joel Brammeier, Alliance for the Great Lakes: This is the moment we’ve got to actually put every measure in place to stop these fish from invading the Great Lakes. Simply because we are making some progress on controlling them in the Illinois River using harvest, which has had a positive impact, doesn’t mean that we stop making progress on an actual, permanent solution to the problem.

Braclett: The Army Corps says for now the Brandon Road study remains on hold.

Related stories:

Photos: Capturing the Invasive Asian Carp in the Illinois River

March 20: Wildlife agencies and fishermen in Illinois are using a Chinese technique to catch Asian carp, an invasive fish species threatening the Great Lakes ecosystem.

EPA Cuts ‘Matter of Life and Death’ for Chicago Communities

March 20: Cuts to the EPA’s budget would affect a disproportionate number of minority and low-income residents in Chicago, experts say.

Great Lakes Funding Threatened

March 13: Lake Michigan and other Great Lakes could see a substantial amount of federal funding dry up.

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