Fish Fence is a Shocking Failure: Is it time to zip up the Great Lakes?

The story of the slow-motion effort to prevent invasive giant Asian carp from infiltrating and destroying the Great Lakes ecosystem is, frankly, embarrassing and pitiful. We’ve known for years that these giant voracious fish were released into the Mississippi River after the Great Mississippi Floods of 1993-----that’s right: 1993. For the past 16 years we have  watched them take over all the  the Mississippi River watershed and expanded further and further into inland US waterways---squeezing out other species all along the way. The biggest fear was that they would eventually make their way up the Illinois River and begin to threaten the Great Lakes.

Knock, knock. They are here. And the only thing protecting Lake Michigan from the menace of a voracious invading predator that all agree will decimate the ecosystem is a quirky Rube Goldberg contraption put together by the Army Corps of Engineers, Coast Guard, and EPA. It’s an electric fence for fish---a device that electrifies the water in the hopes that it  will prevent the big fish from reaching the lakes.

Running electricity into the water sound a little dicey to you? Well, it probably is…

Last October, Dan Egan wrote an excellent article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel which raised worrisome questions about the development of the fish barrier and its ability to stave off this threat. He found significant issues about the transparency of the agencies involved, bungled siting, dubious engineering, and even more dubious boondoggle spending around the fish fence that, after 2 ½ years and $9 million dollars, wasn’t protecting anything but shipping interests.

Now almost a year later, little has changed except that some recent CSI-style genetic tests have shown the fish to be even closer than the authorities expected, forcing them to double the charge in the water in a desperate attempt to keep the carp at bay. The recent alarm bells have renewed public awareness…and concern about the scheme that the Corps and Guard have put into place. Last week, the Chicago Tribune pointed out that boaters have been barred from using the CalSag channel (which links the Illinois River and Lake Michigan and creates the corridor that the fish are currently utilizing) to get their boats off the lake for fear of electrocution…and explosions from sparks….

…yup, the Corps has created a solution that might not keep the fish out, BUT it could kill people if we aren’t careful!

In their headlong effort to keep this channel open to barge shipping, it seems that the Corps and Guard did not bother to test the effect a big patch of electrified water would have on other kinds of craft---such as sailboats with a fiberglass hulls. Oops.

They did test on big metal-hulls like you would find on barges---but those results were a bit problematic too. Researchers found that these boats might create sparks as they passed through the electrified water. This is not ideal, considering many of the barges are hauling flammable and potentially explosive stuff like oil or coal…

And, then there’s the issue of the large piles of coal on the shore that are in danger of spontaneously combusting should the coal dust come into contact with sparks…from the boats most commonly plying these waters…

Oh, and of course, anyone who falls overboard in the electrified area…bzzzzzt!

Can’t we do better? Its time to ask some hard questions here. Like, what are options for a more reasonable and effective solution to this problem? The Corps doesn’t really have an answer---they’ve focused solely only on this problematic solution---but its time to think a little more broadly and practically. What we have presently should be filed under the slogan “We may be incompetent, but at least we are slow.”

Look, Great Lakes shipping has certainly taken a hit in recent years. Nobody is saying it should go away---or that they should be penalized for this hair-brained scheme---but we need to find a better solution than something that might as well be made of  used rubber bands, chewing gum and electrified bailing wire…. At least something that is not more dangerous to humans than the fish that they are intended to rebuff…

While there is no doubt, we need to be able to move goods as effectively and efficiently as possible, do we need to imperil what is arguably the most valuable natural resource in North America to do so? And must we sacrifice other industries, such as the $4.5 billion sports fishing industry in the Great Lakes, to consider too.

And there are also recreational costs that need to be considered. Boaters on the lakes should be concerned, as these fish have a nasty habit of jumping out of the water when they are frightened by things like boat engines… (take a look at the video clip below, taken in the Illinois River last year.)

And on our beaches? Do you want your kids swimming with Rottweiler-sized fish known to break innocent bystanders’ bones when they leap out of the water?

This is another opportunity for our region to take international green leadership.

It is time to question whether we still need a 19th century canal for 21st century business interests---frankly, I think it is time to close the Cal-Sag!

And, really, the problem is not just this canal. It is the entire Chicago Diversion---the Chicago River, the I&M, and the Sanitary and Ship Canal---which have pierced the ecological barriers between the Great Lakes basin and Mississippi River watershed. These waterways were attractive when shipping goods was best accomplished by boat. And they stayed attractive, in part, because other options like intermodal facilities (places where goods are offloaded to a different form of conveyance---from ships to trains or trucks) have been such an incredible environmental disaster for so long. But NRDC has been doing work at the Port of Los Angeles that could translate nicely to the Great Lakes and move these types of facilities from an environmental blight to an economic engine that would help to push more sustainable transportation policy and infrastructure in the region for the decades to come. These are the projects that would create jobs and efficient movement of goods that we should be thinking about as stimulus---green jobs, not fried boat hulls.

Last year’s Journal-Sentinel had a quote that seemed appropriate still:

"If there was an investigation by the GAO (Government Accountability Office)," says Dan Thomas, president of the Great Lakes Sport Fishing Council, "heads would roll."

I think Mr. Thomas is right. And I think it would behoove the Corps and the Guard to start having some discussions about a reasonable way to deal with this problem before someone calls for that investigation… And finding carp in Lake Michigan is a guarantee that you’ll be hearing those hard questions in Springfield and DC…