Illinois Department of Natural Resources: Current Approach to Keeping Asian Carp Out of Lake Michigan “Isn’t Sustainable”

As Asian Carp continue to threaten to invade the Great Lakes, the plethora of legal and technological maneuvers to prevent that invasion have intensified. Methods currently employed will likely have to change in the near future.

In August, a federal appeals panel rejected the request of five Great Lakes states to close Chicago-area shipping locks, but warned that the issue could be revisited if ongoing efforts to stop the advance of Asian carp stall. An electric barrier currently runs across the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal near Lockport.

Despite the recent legal rulings, various groups, including the Army Corps of Engineers, have continued to explore how permanent separation could work, arguing, in part, that current efforts are too costly to sustain and may not be reliable in the long term.

John Rogner, assistant director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, offered next week’s planned maintenance of the electric barrier as an example. It will cost up to $250,000 just to keep Asian carp from moving toward the lake during the routine procedure, he said.

“Clearly that kind of an approach isn’t sustainable,” Rogner said.

We’ve discussed the battles over this invasive species frequently over the past couple of years.  Professor Mike Bryson (who has taught our SUST 220 Water course) gave a presentation last year at the annual conference of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts held in Indianapolis, IN. Entitled “That’s Some Fish Story: What the Asian Carp Controversy Can Tell Us about Science, Sustainability, and the Future of the Great Lakes Watershed,” Bryson’s talk framed the controversy as a complex tangle of scientific, political, legal, and rhetorical issues, rather than a simple “environment vs. economy” debate. As he argued:

Right now one of the greatest fish stories in recent decades is unfolding before our eyes. Its epicenter is the southwestern rim of the Great Lakes Watershed — itself the world’s biggest freshwater surface resource. The Great Asian Carp Controversy has spawned a multistate legal battle about how to prevent the entry of two non-native carp species into the Great Lakes from the Sanitary and Ship Canal that connects Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River basin, and thus avoid a potential environmental catastrophe.

Photo courtesy of Great Lakes Fisheries Commission

The debate about the Asian Carp problem and how to deal with it encompasses a breathtaking variety of conflicting cultural narratives that take the form of media reports, policy documents, international treaties, and scientific studies. Several key themes and tropes structure these narratives, including the dangerous specter of invasive species, sometimes referred to as “biological pollution”; the contested credibility of a new scientific technique, environmental DNA (e-DNA) monitoring; competing economic and ecological arguments about local versus regional sustainability; the role of uncertainty in science and policy; and the capabilities and limitations of technology to solve environmental problems.

Consequently, a sustainability-focused assessment of the Asian Carp threat needs to take into account not just the relevant scientific information, environmental policy, and legal frameworks, but also the content and rhetoric of the fish stories being told. Moreover, the controversy provides an opportunity to critically reflect on the multiple meanings of the sustainability concept itself.

If you are interested in learning more about Roosevelt’s Sustainability Studies program, investigate our degree options and our course listings.  For more information, please visit our Sustainability Studies website, call 1-877-277-5978 (1-877-APPLY RU) or email

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One Response to Illinois Department of Natural Resources: Current Approach to Keeping Asian Carp Out of Lake Michigan “Isn’t Sustainable”

  1. Mike Bryson says:

    Mr. Rogner’s point about the barrier upkeep being “unsustainable” is presumably about the cost of said procedure, which at a quarter-million dollars is hardly chump change. However, that cost is relatively low compared to, say, the potential economic impact of invasive Asian carp upon the Great Lakes, though great uncertainty exists as to the magnitude of that impact. Moreover, it’s also much less money that would need to be invested in a wholesale restructuring of the Chicago region’s hydrology in order to ecologically separate the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins — the prospect currently being studied by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Great Lakes Commission.

    However, what the article *doesn’t* say about the barrier is more important than its maintenance costs: namely, that the barrier in the Illinois Waterway / Sanitary and Ship Canal at Romeoville is an experimental structure that may or may not prove successful in preventing the carp from migrating northward in to the Chicago Area Waterway System. Relying on one method for containg the carp, given this level of uncertainty, is far more “unsustainable” than the projected maintenance costs cited by Rogner. For more detailed analysis of the barrier, I recommend reading this commentary on the Asian carp situation by Philip Willink of the Field Museum of Natural History:

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