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Carp vs. Pols

By Scott Buckner

It has been some years since I covered a news event, so I forgot how easily 11 elected officials and government agency representatives can spend two hours saying nothing new about things we already know because they've already said them before. Such was Tuesday morning's emergency summit on the potential infiltration into Lake Michigan by Asian carp, held appropriately at the John G. Shedd Aquarium.

If people who write for blogs and other websites actually do so sitting in their underwear in their basement as some people in the traditional media seem to believe, they do it because they've wised up: Let the suckers from the "real" media suffer through plan commission meetings. I spent several years as a newspaper reporter suffering through meetings like that, but something compelled me to change into some actual clothes, hop on a South Shore Line train, and suffer through this one, too.

The possibility occurred to me that some Shedd employee would ask for my official Real Reporter-Guy ID that entitled me to be there ("Vas? No papers? Ve haff vays of dealing mit interlopers like you. Hans, introduce Herr Buckner here to ze shark tank, yah?"), so I intentionally dressed down with the idea that I'd stand toward the back of the room and blend in with the guys setting up camera equipment and see how it went from there.

That's where I noticed that Channel 7's Hosea Sanders either has really big feet or just likes to wear unusually long shoes. Still, the guy's one hell of a snappy dresser.

The meeting had promise at first, since it featured local congressfolk Dick Durbin, Judy Biggert and Debbie Halvorson, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and honcho-level people from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and even the U.S. Coast Guard. Mayor Daley was spending the day with his ailing wife, so a delegate dispatched from his office - who wasn't invited by Durbin to provide comment - spent two hours probably picturing what everyone in the audience looked like in their underwear.

The media and political assistants packed most of the place, and several unusually serious, official-looking men in long black overcoats milled about surveying the room. By the looks of things, you'd think President Obama was going to show up and hand out free money.

Basically, the meeting was an emergency platform for everyone to say they're still on top of the issue by studying it to death and will stop at nothing to prevent Asian carp from infiltrating Lake Michigan and decimating the ecosystem and the fishing industry - a scenario that sounds so apocalyptic that the carp might as well have the ability to drink the lake dry, too. You may not know it, but the quagga mussel is already well on its way to decimating Lake Michigan's ecosystem and commercial fishing industry too, but the summit wasn't about quagga mussels.

Asian carp (which isn't a single fish at all, but rather a group of four different carp: grass, black, silver, and bighead) have several notable characteristics, none of which are particularly attractive. They have no natural predators, breed like cockroaches, and love to travel. The silver and bighead are toothless plankton eaters - making them hopeless to catch with a hook and worm - which can vacuum up as much as half their body weight in plankton a day, endangering the food supply for the native sportfish. What the carp do once they discover they've blown through the entire bottom of the food chain is anyone's guess.

The bighead can grow to 100 pounds, which is not an entirely-horrible prospect if things fell apart for Lake Michigan since a fish of that magnitude could provide an almost marlin-like thrill of a lifetime for the old guys who now spend their time snagging for common carp in the park district's lagoons. On the other hand, the silver carp becomes a flying missile in the presence of humming boat motors. Getting smacked by a relatively small one has been described as getting hit by a bowling ball, so you can imagine how you'd feel getting whacked in the head with a fully grown 60-pounder.

Even the living Shedd exhibit that served as the backdrop for the panel (Lisa Madigan didn't see it, but on several occasions the sturgeon in the tank behind her looked like it was swimming into one of her ears and out the other) reflected the carps' lowly station. While the tank containing the native sport fish was portrayed as a vibrant and healthy underwater environment, the Asian carp tank looked like what you'd expect to see if the Cal-Sag Canal cleared up, without the stripped stolen cars and discarded one-hitters littering the bottom.

Nobody knows how close to Lake Michigan the Asian carp might be, but Charlie Wooley, the deputy regional director for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Midwest region, confirmed a report at Tuesday's meeting that the presence of Asian carp environmental DNA (eDNA) was detected near the Wilmette pumping station along the Chicago River. The presence of eDNA indicates the presence of a piece of fish - such as a single scale or a piece of skin - which doesn't seem all that surprising given that researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have discovered that during the winter, water hugging the riverbed may actually flow toward the lake. Heck, given the number of used condoms that end up in the city's toilets and sewers, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to detect human eDNA in the Chicago River if you tested for that, too.

Aside from the carp itself, the major headache is the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which carries billions of dollars worth of commercial barge traffic and comparatively well-off people on very expensive pleasure boats between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River every year. Opened in 1900 to reverse the city's flow of sewage, dead cattle, cholera and typhoid away from Lake Michigan so it could become someone else's problem downstream, the CSSC has become the express lane for foreign ecosystem-stripping invaders like the zebra mussel and the round goby. The CSSC will also likely be the pipeline for the spread of the fish-killing VHS virus.

Electric barriers have been erected as the main line of defense against Asian carp at the lock-and-dams nearest Chicago, but I imagine if spawning salmon loaded with eggs can swim miles upstream to vault raging waterfalls, an underwater barrier strung across a slow-moving canal doesn't seem much of a deterrent for a flying carp with traveling on its mind.

If Durbin intended the meeting to determine whether anyone has come up with any bright new ideas beyond the Michigan State Attorney General's petition a few weeks ago for an injunction to shut down the CSSC's locks, Durbin and the media must have been disappointed. Beyond the pledge by Biggert and Halvorson to pester the hell out of their fellow congressmen from other Great Lakes states once they flew back to Washington later in the day, Illinois Department of Natural Resources assistant director John Rogner suggested an "if you can't beat 'em, eat 'em" approach. I couldn't tell whether he was kidding, but this idea has already been thought of.

The situation is dire, but it's not hopeless. Others have already adopted an "if you can't eat 'em, beat 'em" approach to the Asian carp problem. So if they're ever faced with similarly having to turn gators into Gatorade, our city and county fathers could create a perpetual cash cow and go redneck by turning to silver carp skeet shooting. A bunch of dead boats and boaters floating about with gaping shotgun holes in them might be troublesome at first, but if we've learned anything about our local elected officials, it's that no problem is too big or complex to solve if it's standing between them and money.

Still, if anyone on Tuesday's panel was in the best position to bring up actual ideas for discussion, it was Cameron "failure is not an option" Davis, the U.S. EPA's Great Lakes czar. That's because Davis was president of the conservation group Alliance for the Great Lakes when it stated in a 112-page report in November 2008 that the only completely certain way to prevent failure and the exchange of organisms and animal life was to "ecologically sever" the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River basins. The report also outlined 23 different solutions, and while few of them are foolproof, inexpensive, or overly friendly to navigation, they're technologically possible ideas nonetheless.

Yes, it would have been the sort of stellar, earthshaking moment all reporters dream of witnessing had Davis turned to Durbin and said, "Dude, we came up with 23 ideas more than a year ago. Time's a-wasting - pick one already." But he didn't. It wouldn't have been the most politically correct or career-furthering response, but it certainly would have made everyone's day - not to mention making me damn glad I got out of my blogger bathrobe to cover something in person.

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on January 14, 2010


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