Block the carp: If the fish settle in Lake Erie, beware

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Invasive Asian grass carp were imported from China in the 1970s to control plant growth in ponds. Of course, they escaped. Now, they and their more-voracious cousins — bighead and silver carp — threaten native fish in the Great Lakes as they multiply and spread. Still, there is no adequate response from Washington.

Biologists have determined that four grass carp caught in 2012 in the Sandusky River in northern Ohio were born there. Alarmingly, this is the first confirmed case of any Asian carp reproducing in the Great Lakes or their tributaries.

Grass carp overeat vegetation also used by native fish; bighead and silver carp gorge themselves on plankton that native fish would eat. The carp have overwhelmed the Mississippi River, are working their way up the Ohio River and an onslaught is headed for the Great Lakes, where an $8 billion-a-year recreational and commercial fishing industry is threatened. Pennsylvania and other lake states have a right to be worried.

The invasive fish are reportedly 20 miles from entering Lake Michigan and are being held back only by Army Corps of Engineers electrical barriers in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

Scientists are skeptical whether those barriers can hold over the long term.

In July, the Obama administration unveiled a $50 million plan to improve the network of electrical and other barriers to contain carp. It isn’t enough.

The ultimate solution is permanent separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River drainage basins by closing the Chicago canal, a superhighway for invasive species. Nature meant for the Mississippi’s watershed to be separate from the Great Lakes’. The canal corrupted this division.

At the same time, Congress needs to fund fully the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which had bipartisan support when President Obama launched it in 2009 with a budget of $475 million. This year’s spending fell to $285 million because of the budget sequester. House Republicans want to cut the program to $210 million next year.

The Corps of Engineers must wrap up its studies and devise solutions now to stop the carp. If not, the fish will endanger the environment and economy of the Great Lakes region. The alternatives are containment or disaster.

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