Measure regulating Asian carp passes easily in U.S. House

BY JONAH MOST
For the Daily
Published December 1, 2010

The United States House of Representatives approved the Asian Carp Prevention and Control Act by a voice vote yesterday — a bill that regulates bighead Asian carp under the Lacey Act, banning importation and interstate transport of the invasive species currently threatening the Great Lakes.

The Senate unanimously passed a companion measure earlier this month, and the bill will now head to President Barack Obama’s desk to be signed into law.

If signed, the bighead carp will join company with silver carp, which the Fish and Wildlife Service has regulated since 2007.

Many government officials and interest groups, who have clashed on other measures regarding the regulation of Asian carp, jointly expressed support for the bill in recent months.

Confident that the legislation would garner enough support, House leaders passed the bill under suspension of the rules — a process that allows for expedited consideration with limited debate and requires a two-thirds majority for passage.

Rep. Judy Biggert (R–Ill.), who sponsored the legislation, praised its victory as a triumph of bipartisanship, according to a press release.

“I’m very pleased we were able to work with our colleagues from Michigan to secure enactment of this measure, and grateful for the support of my colleagues from throughout the Great Lakes states,” she said in the press release.

Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the group Alliance for the Great Lakes, said in an interview that he supported the bill but questioned its impact.

According to Brammeier, because bighead carp are already outlawed in all of the Great Lakes states, the bill will be a good measure for other watersheds, but won’t have much of an effect on the Great Lakes system.

“It’s a little bit like closing the barn door after the horse has run away,” he said.

UnLock Our Jobs, a coalition of business groups formed to protect commercial interests from what they view as unwarranted Asian carp regulation, also expressed support for the measure.

“To be perfectly clear, the coalition doesn’t want Asian carp advancing to the Great Lakes any more than our so-called opposition,” said Mark Biel, chair of UnLock Our Jobs.

One possible target of the legislation is a religious group, which is said to ritually release the fish into Lake Michigan, according to Prof. David Jude of the University’s School of Natural Resources and Environment.

Several other regulatory measures pending in congressional committees are more widely contested.

The Close All Routes and Prevent Asian Carp Today Act, proposed by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D–Mich.) and Rep. Dave Camp (R–Mich.), directs the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to immediately close several key waterways.

The bill was introduced several months before the Supreme Court denied a request from Michigan and four other Great Lakes states for an injunction to close the waterways.

The CARP ACT intends to provide a physical barrier that prevents the Asian carp — already prevalent in the Mississippi River — from advancing farther into the Great Lakes.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, the invasive carp, which can weigh as much as 100 pounds and grow to four feet in length, “pose a significant risk to the Great Lakes Ecosystem.”

However, UnLock Our Jobs has defiantly opposed the passage of the CARP ACT, citing its potential to slow the transport of commodities valued above $16 billion that move through the Chicago locks each year. According to the interest group’s website, closing the locks could cost billions of dollars in delays and increased product costs.

Rep. Biggert echoed the sentiments of the group, saying that she also opposes the bill.

“Measures like these may catch headlines, but they won’t catch carp,” she said in a press release.

A second contested measure, also introduced by Stabenow and Camp, would require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete a study of how to best separate the waterways within 18 months. According to Brammeier, a current study from the Army Corp is expected to take five years.

The study “is nothing but an attempt to force the hand of regional officials to pursue hydrological separation,” Biel said.

The fault lines in this debate appear more geographic than partisan, with support for regulation centered in Michigan, Ohio and Minnesota — states whose economies are heavily dependent on Great Lakes tourism.

Nine of the 12 co-sponsors of the House version of the CARP ACT represent Michigan.

This summer, in a letter to President Obama, outgoing Democratic Governor of Ohio Ted Strickland warned that Asian carp pose both an ecological and economic threat to the state.

“Ohio’s $10 billion a year Lake Erie tourism industry would be destroyed – along with 114,000 jobs,” he wrote in the letter.

Politicians in Illinois may look to balance ecological concerns with the financial impact of regulation on commercial shipping, which is particularly important to the state’s economy. The Chicago locks are also a crucial component of Chicago’s sewage treatment system.

Debate over the extent to which the carp are an ecological threat is still ongoing.

This is in part due to the capture of an almost 20-pound carp in Lake Calumet by a fisherman this past June. The carp was the first to be caught past the electric barrier, which was put into place to prevent the migration of invasive species into the Great Lakes basins.

For some, this fish and subsequent DNA samplings provide evidence of the inadequacy of an electric barrier to control carp movement and the need for a permanent hydrological separation. Others, including Biggert, interpreted the catch of just one fish as a sign of the success of current measures.

“The fact that months of collection and fish kills have yielded only a single fish confirms that no self-sustaining, breeding population of Asian carp has reached beyond the barrier system to threaten Lake Michigan,” she wrote in the press release.

Jude, who said he supports an eventual hydrological separation, added that he is also cautiously optimistic, adding that some studies suggest the fish couldn’t even survive in Lake Michigan due to low plankton levels and cold waters.

“Even if we get carp into the lakes it’s going to take a long time for them to colonize,” Jude said. “One or two fish isn’t going to cut it.”

Catfish farmers first imported Asian carp in the 1970s as a means of removing algae from their ponds. But, in the 1990s, Asian carp spread into various waterways in the Mississippi River Basin when the ponds overflowed.