Thursday, December 24, 2009

11. Control of Nature and Invasive Species: The Case of the Asian Carp

From the sidelines, the story of the Asian carp has moved to the forefront.[i] On Monday, the Associated Press reported[ii] that state of Michigan has filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court against Illinois, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. Michigan has asked the Supreme Court to sever a century-old connection between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River system to prevent Asian carp from invading the lakes and endangering their $7 billion fishery and harm the drinking water supply for over 40 million people.

Asian bighead and silver carp have been migrating north in the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers since the 1990s. It can transform the Great Lakes ecosystem into something unrecognizable. In sections of the Illinois River where the carp has taken hold, it makes up nine out of every 10 pounds of living material -- plant or animal.

This month, officials poisoned a section of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to prevent the carp from getting closer to Lake Michigan while an electrical barrier was taken down for maintenance. But scientists say DNA found north of the barrier suggest that at least some of the carp have gotten through and may be within six miles of Lake Michigan. If so, the only other obstacle between them and the lake are shipping locks and gates, which open frequently for cargo vessels.

The lawsuit asks for the locks and waterways to be closed immediately as a stopgap measure, echoing a call last week by 50 members of Congress and environmental groups. But the suit goes further, also requesting a permanent separation between the carp-infested waters and the lakes.

That would mean cutting off the link that was established more than 100 years ago, when the City of Chicago reversed the flow of the Chicago River and built the canals to send sewage-fouled water from Lake Michigan south toward the Mississippi River.

Obama administration officials pledged $13 million last week to prevent carp from migrating between the Des Plaines River and the canal and thus bypassing the electronic barrier.

Environmentalists said that closing the locks would be a temporary solution, but that the only long-term remedy would be restoring the natural separation between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River system, which Michigan is now seeking.

American Waterway Operators, a trade group for barges and tugs that haul cargo on waterways in the Chicago area, said closing the locks even temporarily “would be very devastating for our industry.”

As with most battles against “invasive species”, this situation is caused by human intervention. The carp were imported to the South in the 1970s for aquaculture and waste water treatment facilities. Their “job” was to keep retention ponds clean through their veracious appetite. But they escaped into the Mississippi River during the flooding in the 1990s and have been swimming steadily upstream since.

The story of Asian carp points to two issues of high importance. First, human desire to control (engineer) nature, and how such intervention is subject to the law of unintended consequences often with disastrous effect. Second, our species is the main invasive species on the planet that is causing irreversible destruction of nature that sustain society. Although capitalist mode of production and the profit motive greatly accelerated these tendencies, their roots as far back as 10,000 years ago. I will write more about these themes later.

[i] For a video that treats Asian carp as some sort of alien creature click the following link:

[ii] The New York Time, December 21, 2009.

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