LANSING -- An electric "fence" through the Chicago River is all that stands between Asian carp and the Great Lakes.
That fact alone may not be frightening, but the Asian carp is yet another invasive aquatic species Ð joining trespassers such as the zebra mussel and the nutria -- that could threaten the entire Great Lakes ecosystem and do billions of dollars worth of damage to the U.S. economy.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, introduced legislation to increase federal spending and the national response to aquatic invasive species. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and four Senate Republicans are cosponsoring the proposal.
"The problem of aquatic invasive species is a very real one that costs the American public billions of dollars a year and threatens the Great Lakes," Levin said.
Invasive species are organisms that are not natural to an ecosystem. Because they are unknown to local plants and animals, they can flourish without natural predators. This, unfortunately, crowds other species out of the ecosystem by using the resources such as food that they had access to.
If the legislation is passed, environmental experts say it will deal with some of the pressing problems that now hamper the battle against invasive species and provide for action against newcomers in the future.
"Forty-two percent of species on the endangered species list were made endangered because of invasive species," said Melissa Soule, the communications director for the Michigan chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
Soule said Levin's proposal addresses many of the needs that remained after the 1996 National Invasive Species Act.
"With aquatic invasive species, it's a lot harder to get a foothold on them once they're here," Soule said. "The new bill specifically goes after those aquatic species, instead of all invasive species."
Under the bill, $170 million would be made available for prevention, control and research. States with aquatic invasive species management plans already in place -- Michigan and 12 other states -- would be eligible for increased funding.
Soule cited provisions dealing with Great Lakes shipping as among the important in the bill.
"All ships will be required to have an invasive species management plan on board," Soule said. "Ballast water is of particular concern to us."
The 1996 law regulates ballast water, the source of zebra mussels among other exotic species, but the new legislation would strengthen controls.
"I could definitely see some of the larger ships hiring an on-board aquatic ecologist," Soule said.
Donald Schloesser, a member of the national Great Lakes Panel on Aquatic Nuisance Species, said the most urgent need is a rapid response process to deal with new invasions.
"If we find an exotic species in a new place, it's not like an oil spill -- we have no idea what to do about it," said Schloesser, an Ann Arbor resident and fisheries biologist, said. "If we suddenly found a new invasive species in a lake, we'd still be in a slow reactionary mode."
The proposed bill would spend $30 million specifically for developing and implementing rapid response plans.
Some are not satisfied with the slow pace at which the country is dealing with the invasive species problem.
When invasive species legislation was introduced in 1990, it was meant to be reinforced every five years, said Schloesser. The law hasn't been touched since 1996, however.
This angers those who depend on the Great Lakes economy. "Why there's been such a slow reaction to confront this, it doesn't make any sense," said Tom Gorenflo, the director of the intertribal fisheries program for the Chippewa/Ottawa resource authority and a Sault St. Marie resident.
"I can see if it was purely environmental, but it isn't. It hurts the economy, too."
Hurt may be an understatement, with estimates of the annual economic damage caused in the United States by invasive species reaching as high as $137 billion.
The cost of the proposed legislation would be nothing compared to the money it could save, according to Levin.
The shipping industry and especially the oft-troubled fishing industry both fall prey to the damages of invasive species and would welcome the bill.
"One exotic species can put an end to your fishery," Gorenflo said.
Gorenflo referred to the problems that the United States and Canada have had with the sea lamprey. "Fisheries spend millions every year to defend against the lamprey, and that could skyrocket if we get another exotic," he said.
Asian carp and two other species of carp are knocking on the door of the Great Lakes, and Gorenflo said it won't be long before the new invasive species get in. "I don't think there's any doubt that there will be three new species of carp in the Great Lakes in the next two years," he said.
The question now is, will the bill be passed?
"I believe they remain hopeful of having passage this spring," said Roger Eberhardt, Michigan's representative on the Great Lakes Panel and an official of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
Gorenflo said, "There's so much support for it, I can't see it not getting passed.
"Everybody's making noise about this."
But the noise may go unheard, as it did in 2002, because of current budget constraints, Eberhardt said. "Appropriations are not necessarily easy to predict in these times.
"It's been introduced in previous congresses and didn't make it out, so we'll have to wait."
© 2003, Capital News Service, Michigan State University
School of Journalism
© 2003, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism