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Fish kill called necessary to save the Great Lakes

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Never before have Illinois agencies tried to kill so many fish at one time. By the time the poison dissipates in a few days, state officials estimate that 200,000 pounds of fish will be bound for landfills. But they say the stakes - the Great Lakes ecosystem and its healthy fish population- could hardly be higher.

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By Kari Lydersen and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 6, 2009

LOCKPORT, ILL. -- The poisoned fish began floating to the surface in the cold Illinois dawn, but as scientists and ecologists began hauling their lifeless catch to shore, they found only one carcass of the predator they targeted -- the ravenous Asian carp.

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Never before have Illinois agencies tried to kill so many fish at one time. By the time the poison dissipates in a few days, state officials estimate that 200,000 pounds of fish will be bound for landfills. But they say the stakes -- the Great Lakes ecosystem and its healthy fish population -- could hardly be higher.

Asian carp have slowly been making their way up the Mississippi River and its tributaries, shifting the ecological balance as they devour enormous quantities of plankton that once sustained other species.

Neither prayers nor multimillion-dollar electronic fences have stopped the carp, which commonly grow to a fat-bellied four feet long. Amid fears that the fish are drawing closer to Lake Michigan on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, scientists turned to a poison called rotenone.

"It's time to man the barricades. We've simply got to protect the Great Lakes at all costs," said John Rogner, assistant director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which is leading the chemical attack while an electronic fence is being repaired.

But where are the carp?

"I expected to see boatloads of Asian carp coming in. You can't escape rotenone," said Dan Thomas, president of the Great Lakes Sport Fishing Council. "As far as the fishing community is concerned, no news is good news."

By Friday, state officials had identified one dead 22-inch fish as a bighead Asian carp.

"That doesn't mean there weren't other carp in there," said Noah Hall, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. "We may be at the point where a few have gotten through, but it's not too late to prevent carp from getting established in the Great Lakes."

A bustling encampment of 350 specialists and volunteers now occupies a stretch of the canal, built in the 1890s to carry sewage away from Chicago and its supply of drinking water. A flotilla of small boats crisscrosses the steel gray waters in below-freezing temperatures, looking for Asian carp.

By Friday, state officials patrolling a six-mile stretch of canal were netting dead common carp and thousands of other "rough fish" not valued by fisherman. Earlier, bass and other sport fish had been collected and transported to safe waters with the use of electric shocks, which stunned but did not kill them.

Department of Natural Resources spokesman Chris McCloud said that the early results are inconclusive and that Asian carp could still surface: "In terms of deciding whether there are or are not Asian carp or how many, we just don't know."


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