Two species of unremarkable looking fish have been thrust into the spotlight as of late, as high-level presidential appointees, governors, and attorneys general from six Great Lakes states position themselves on either side of a controversial policy issue: whether or not to close the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal that currently links the Great Lakes with the Mississippi River system. Proponents of closing the canal say that it must be done immediately to stop two species of Asian Grass Carp, the Silver Carp and the Bighead Carp, from entering Lake Michigan in numbers that could lead to the establishment of a breeding population. It is widely held among scientists that a breeding population of these fish in the Great Lakes could and probably would destroy the commercial and sport fishing industries, with some predicting that this could happen in as little as seven years.. Forget images of great toothed beasts hunting down and killing native fish populations in a grim display of wanton carnage. These carp eat microscopic phytoplankton and zooplankton. The only problem is, they eat it in unprecedented quantities. Adult Asian Carp regularly weigh over forty pounds, sometimes up to one hundred pounds, and can eat half their body weight in plankton each day. That is in fact the reason these fish were first imported into the United States by catfish farmers in the lower Mississippi River basin. Their voracious appetite can help control weeds in fish ponds, and their white, flaky flesh can be marketed for food. Unfortunately, flooding helped these fish escape domestication into the Mississippi River and its tributaries, through which they have been swimming north ever since. It is estimated that in some areas of the Illinois River, 95% of the biomass is Asian Carp. Small native fish that also eat plankton can't compete for food, and die out. Then, larger game fish die out because there are no smaller fish to prey upon. This is the threat posed to the Great Lakes and Michigan's $7 billion commercial and recreational fishery, upon which it is estimated 800,000 jobs rely.
Those who would be most economically impacted by closing the canal, meanwhile, call these assumptions into question, and say that the very real and immediate detrimental effect that closing the canal would have on the shipping industry far outweighs the projected damage to the Great Lakes. For the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois, closing the canal could mean the loss of thousands of jobs associated with the $1.7 billion shipping and freight industries. This in turn would mean less revenue for the city, the state, and private enterprise in the area - in an already troubled economy. Illinois politicians are presenting a united front of opposition to the proposal, and so far the most influential of all of them - President Barack Obama - seems to be toeing the line. The Obama administration helped shoot down an attempt by Michigan Attorney General (and gubernatorial hopeful) Mike Cox to sue for the immediate closure of the canal. This suit, which was supported by the governors of Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Minnesota, as well as the government of Ontario, was dismissed in a one-sentence decision by the Supreme Court after U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan expressed the Obama administration's opposition to it. Cox is still hopeful that the Supreme Court could re-open a century old lawsuit that challenges the legality of the canal's water withdrawals from Lake Michigan.
Shortly after Cox's setback, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm called for a meeting with white house officials to discuss the problem. A date of February 8th has been set for that meeting, which will include Governors Jennifer Granholm, Jim Doyle of Wisconsin, and Pat Quinn of Illinois, as well as the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and top officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Coast Guard. Cox and four other state Attorneys General requested to be at the meeting, but were denied permission. While the cynical would be quick to point out that this is a convenient win-win issue for Cox in an election year where name recognition is important and looking tough on environmental protection could help win over swing voters, most environmentalists just seem happy to have Cox on what they see as the right side of the issue.