While Wisconsin branches of the BP franchise are feeling the pain of the oil spill, Wisconsin itself is in danger of sacrificing the health of its waterways. Though there has been no oil spill, a dangerous foreign additive can be found in waters in and around the state: various species of invasive Asian carp.
Most people are familiar with these fish, which have been popularized by videos showing them leaping out of the water and hitting people on the head or getting skewered by an aerial bow-fisherman. Their presence is even felt in some of the state’s waterways. Since January, when carp DNA was found in Lake Michigan, attention has again been turned to them. Unfortunately, despite the lessons that are being taught by the crisis in the Gulf region, we seem not to be paying attention to the parallels in our own waters.
First, the quality of our water resources does have a real and large effect on our industries, and those whose livelihoods rely on them. Although these fish are not as visible a presence as a plume of oil of disputed size, their destructive powers are no less worrisome. Because they consume large amounts of plankton, a key species for which native fish also compete, they can greatly impact not only other fish species, but all those that depend on native fish as well. Once established, they are extremely difficult to “clean up” and can become a permanent feature of their new habitat. Overall, the $7 billion annual fishing industry, not to mention the tourism and recreation industry, has a lot to lose should these aquatic invaders make their way to the Great Lakes.
Second, the value of prevention is often underestimated. Last week, after many calls from Illinois tourism and shipping companies to keep the locks connecting the Mississippi and Lake Michigan open for business, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has stated it will not try to close them. This comes after the President and the Supreme Court gave the same response earlier this year. While this would only have been one of the necessary steps to prevent the spread of the fish it rests on an attitude that prefers short-term profits over long-term economic viability.
Other solutions have been discussed. Two electric barriers are already in place, and a third one is scheduled to be completed this year. More effective than this would be ecological separation, which would allow for the passage of ships without the transfer of water over a barrier.
True, this would be a costly solution, reaching even into the billions of dollars. But it is important to remember that we’ve spent the last few weeks criticizing BP for putting profits before safety and responsibility. How can we hope that they are learning the value of investing in prevention if we ourselves are not willing to display it? And we should indeed look at this as an opportunity to prevent more ecological destruction. Regardless of whether carp have established a viable population in Lake Michigan, history would suggest that it is likely that bighead and silver carp will not be the last invasive species to enter the lake through this waterway. That is, unless we take steps now to make sure that accessing the Great Lakes is not possible for future aquatic invaders.