Erie and its native bounty
The shimmering waters of Lake Erie stretch to the horizon like an inland ocean. The Great Lakes hold 20-percent of the world’s fresh water, and of the five, Erie is the most productive. Perch, walleye, bass and other native fish thrive to the tune of a 10-million-pound haul each year. It’s an estimated $7 billion industry.
And that’s why charter captain Nate Stansberry is at the Cleveland Public Library on this cold January night, talking fish with me. He's fished around the world but chose Cleveland as his home because of the abundance of Lake Erie's waters.
Stansberry is one of around 100 people attending a meeting hosted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps is in Cleveland to detail options to protect Lakes Erie’s fishery from two voracious interlopers coming up the Mississippi, the silver and big head carp. Stansberry says the fertility that makes Erie a world class fishing hotspot, also make it an Eden for invasives.
Another citizen here to voice concern about the risk of invasive carp is Attorney General Mike DeWine. He says an Asian carp invasion would have, "a tremendous economic impact on northern Ohio.” And not just for fishermen.
Each year, one third of Ohio’s 40 billion tourism dollars are spent along the lake shore, supporting 17,000 jobs. And DeWine says the carp put all of it -- fishing, boating, and related industries at risk.
DeWine says there’s really only one solution to prevent the disaster, "and that is to have a separation of the water to keep the fish from going into the Great Lakes, there’s no other way to do it.”
Ohio's sense of urgency is not shared in Chicago
Inside the library auditorium, DeWine and more than a dozen others deliver that message to the Army Corps. Among them is Marcy Kaptur, whose congressional district runs along the lake shore from Toledo to Cleveland.
She has harsh words for the meeting’s hosts, reminding the crowd that, "It took a bill in Congress to wake the Corps up from its hibernation."
Kaptur says the Corps has done this region a disservice, "in failing to make a final and firm recommendation about the best course of action to prevent an Asian carp invasion of our lakes.”
Like virtually every other speaker at the January 16th meeting, Kaptur urges immediate action.
"We have to save this lake and the others.” - Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo
The politics of parting the waters
But project manager Dave Wethington says the Army Corps cannot rush any decision. Which is why its report 2 weeks ago outlined eight options – from simply maintaining the current electric barrier leading to the Chicago Shipping and Sanitary Canal, to an $18 billion severing of the Chicago waterways from the Great Lakes – but did not put its weight behind any of them.
Wethington says the Corps of Engineers is not going to to make a specific decision without the, "shared responsibility,” of a host of political players, including the White House.
Wethington says closing off the Chicago waterways that connect the carp infested Mississippi system with the lakes is the easy part. The 25 year hold-up, he says, and more than 80 percent of the $18.4 billion dollar price tag is rerouting Chicago’s flow of waste water and flood control.
"We need to make sure that the city of Chicago, over nine million residents, and the significant natural resources of Lake Michigan are protected from adverse water quality impacts." - Dave Wethington, USACE
Col. Fred Drummond is commander of the Corps’ Chicago district. He’s thinking of the challenges of undoing a century’s worth of hydraulic infrastructure in the Windy City, and is in no hurry to jump into a project of that scale.
He hedges his comments with a big IF, saying "IF we’re going to alter the waterway in Chicago, we’ve got to be able to deal with the flood risk measures that come along with that.”
But Drummond says if the political will is there, he’s on board for whatever the politicians decide. But he warns, "there’s a lot of different dynamics in the construction industry that go along with building a big reservoir.”
The wolf at the door
Meanwhile a less destructive invasive, the grass carp has been found breeding in the Sandusky river. And in 2010 a 20-pound big head carp was caught beyond the electric barrier that is supposed to keep the fish from getting beyond the Chicago waterways toward the lakes. Smatterings of Carp DNA are showing up more often in Great Lakes samples, and everyone agrees the wolf is at the door.
But, Lake Erie fisherman Nate Stansberry is confident a solution will be found to save his livelihood. “Fisherman," he says, "are all optimists, because you have to be.”
Public comment of the Corps of Engineer’s invasive carp plan ends March 3rd.