Tuesday, January 26, 2010

There is No Time for Debate About the Asian Carp

Will we get more than rhetoric with the asian carp?

It is a fair question to ask. Throughout the history of invasive species in the Great Lakes region the trend seems to be to pay it lip service and do little. That is why Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox does deserve praise by acting fast to do all that he legally could to close the locks. Now we are getting ready for the Washington carp summit. It sounds like some great opportunities for 30 second sound bites and some great photo-ops.

More talking. Maybe Obama will set up a symbolic task force, or better yet a scientific panel. Maybe we can build more electric barriers and never turn them on all the way. None of this posturing is new, it all sounds vaguely familiar.

There has been a long history of not taking invasive species seriously. Consider the history of bungled ballast water regulations. In 1973, shortly after the Clean Water Act was enacted a curious amendment was added that exempted ballast water from the Clean Water Act. The reasoning was that it caused little pollution.

This then put the regulation of ballast water under the watch of the U.S. Coast Guard. Even as early as 1981 there were conclusive studies that found that ballast water contained live organisms that were being transported to the lakes and had the potential for ecological harm. It took nearly a decade for the first federal law to take effect in 1990, known as the Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act (NANPCA). This law was in direct response to the zebra mussel invasion that ground the city of Monroe Michigan to a halt, as the zebra mussels clogged the water intake pipes.

Even despite reauthorizing NANPCA in 1996 and renaming it the National Invasive Species Act (NISA), the laws were still a paper tiger in actually stopping the flow of invasive species. The Coast Guard still allowed the vast majority of ships through without flushing out their tanks. This was partly because ballast water was not being treated as a pollutant and because there was another gaping loophole.

Ships that have no ballast water which are referred to as NoBobs (No Ballast on Board), still contained tons of mud in the bottom of the tanks that were teeming with potential aquatic invaders and pathogens. So despite the appearance of doing something about invasive species, there were still gaping loopholes.

In 1999 California environmental groups and anglers filed a petition to the EPA to have ballast water regulated under the Clean Water Act. The EPA dragged its feet and fought the case. There wasn't a decision until 2005 and though it was a huge victory for environmental groups, the EPA would not be required to regulate ballast water until the fall of 2008. That was also the year that the U.S. Coast Guard closed the NoBob loophole. The main fight now is coming up with ballast water treatment standards.

The point of this short history of ballast water is that while we kill time holding carp summits and fighting court battles, nature goes on. It took 17 years to even admit that ballast water was harmful to the Great Lakes. It has been 37 years since the Clean Water Act and the ballast water exception and we still don't have federal ballast water treatment standards. We are running out of time on this carp issue. The idea of the carp summit has opened up a new debate about whether the carp are a threat or not. Chicago politicians are wondering why people throughout the Great Lakes basin are freaking out about the carp. It's because we have been through all of this before. We have seen many of the initial gains of the fishery and water quality of Lake Huron and Lake Erie be reversed from the unforeseen consequences of zebra and quagga mussel infestation. We have nearly had nuclear meltdowns from cladophora algae clogging the intake pipes of nuclear plants. There is nothing to debate. Invasive species are not good, and the asian carp won't be good for the Great Lakes.

Despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the emergency closing of the locks, Michigan legislators have persisted with the CARP ACT (Close All Routes and Prevent Asian Carp Today). Meanwhile, a date has yet to be set for the White House asian carp summit. Nobody is really sure what will happen since the Obama Administration has sided with Illinois shipping interests. Whatever does happen at the carp summit or legally, time drags on and the locks remain open. Make no mistake about it, wasting time on this issue is political posturing to narrow Illinois shipping interests.

Here are some useful links about what Michigan legislators are proposing, and the plans that the Feds have proposed.

Detroit Free Press Links: Efforts to combat Asian carp

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