Ind. environmental activist picked to lead effort to keep Asian carp from invading Great Lakes

By John Flesher, AP
Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ind. activist to head federal anti-carp campaign

CHICAGO — John Goss, an environmental activist and former state official from Indiana, was appointed Wednesday as the Obama administration’s point man in the fight to prevent Asian carp from gaining a foothold in the Great Lakes.

Goss will oversee efforts by federal, state and local agencies to halt the advance of bighead and silver carp, which are on the verge of invading Lake Michigan through Chicago-area waterways. Scientists say if the voracious carp become established in the lakes, they could damage the food chain and a $7 billion regional fishing industry.

Goss has served as executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Indiana affiliate for four years. Previously, he was director of the state Department of Natural Resources and served as vice chairman of the Great Lakes Commission, an agency representing the region’s eight states.

Goss “will help to ensure coordination among government agencies and the most effective response across all levels of government to this threat,” said Nancy Sutley, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

He also will be Sutley’s primary adviser on the carp problem and be in charge of carrying out a $78.5 million federal effort to control the carp announced in February. The plan calls for a series of technological and infrastructure upgrades, such as strengthening an electronic barrier on the man-made waterway linking Lake Michigan to the Illinois River.

Critics say the plan lacks clear goals and timetables and is weak because it does not endorse closing navigational locks and gates in Chicago that could give the carp an opening to the lake — an issue that has sharply divided the region.

Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Minnesota and Pennsylvania have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to shut down the locks and permanently sever the link between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds. At a hearing on the case Wednesday in Chicago, a top official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers testified that electrical barriers are the agency’s best defense against the Asian carp, but aren’t perfect.

Gen. John Peabody said metal-hulled ships can disrupt a small part of a barrier’s electrical field. Asked by an attorney for the states whether a fish could get through the barrier by swimming close to a barge, Peabody said, “It’s possible. We consider it very unlikely.”

Peabody, who commands the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division of the Corps, said the equipment and barriers needed to permanently close the locks would cost millions of dollars that otherwise could pay for repairs to locks and dams in such bad shape they could fail.

An Italian biologist testified that a genetic test that has indicated the presence of Asian carp in the Chicago area could give misleading results.

Testifying by video hookup from Italy, Gentile Ficetola of the University of Milan said the so-called environmental DNA testing could have found remains of dead fish or fish that were transported in barges’ ballast water. Ficetola and his colleagues were pioneers of the DNA technique, he said.

David Lodge, the University of Notre Dame scientist who found carp DNA in Chicago waters, has acknowledged such possibilities but says it’s much likelier the DNA came from live fish.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in northern Illinois, accuses the Corps of Engineers and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago of creating a public nuisance by operating locks, gates and other infrastructure through which the carp could enter the lakes.

In a phone conference with reporters, Goss acknowledged the sharp disagreement in the region but said the eight Great Lakes states have a history of cooperation and his contacts among them would help forge a common front. He declined to take a position on the question of separating the two basins, the subject of an Army Corps of Engineers study.

He also said an updated version of the federal plan would be released in October — one that would have a clearer schedule for getting things done.

Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said his state’s opposition to closing the Chicago waterways should not be seen as lack of commitment to warding off the carp threat.

“We are not in denial, are not in a go-slow mode,” Durbin said. “A lot of good things are happening.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, said despite their states’ disagreement, she and Durbin were co-sponsoring legislation prodding the Army Corps to accelerate its study.

“Whether it’s Asian carp or the next round of zebra mussels or sea lamprey, we know the invasive species coming up the Mississippi River are a constant threat to us,” Stabenow said.

While Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Marc Miller, the director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, praised Goss’ appointment, U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., said the Asian carp job should have gone to someone from her state because it has the most to lose.

“Mr. Goss must understand that we in Michigan and other Great Lakes states will not tolerate delays and study after study before decisive action is taken,” Miller said. “The time to act is now.”

AP Environmental Writer John Flesher reported from New Orleans.

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