The Continuing Campaign Against Invasive Species in the Great Lakes

As Asian Carp continue to threaten to invade the Great Lakes, the plethora of legal and technological maneuvers to prevent that invasion have intensified.  While the Asian Carp are a major threat to the region’s ecosystem, this is not the only invasive species threatening Lake Michigan.

An electric barrier erected in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal is now the only thing standing between the carp and Lake Michigan, where some fear the carp may destroy the fragile Great Lakes ecosystem.

So in recent years, federal and state governments have decided to re-energize their carp-fighting campaigns.

Beyond the Asian carp bio-bullet, new efforts include an underwater carp camera, fine mesh nets intended to snare larvae and a large water gun that creates a barrier by emitting sound waves under water. To lure the carp to their deaths, scientists are also working on an enticing buffet of female carp urine containing sex pheromones and highly concentrated algae.

“I think we actually have a fighting chance,” said Leon Carl, regional executive for theU.S. Geological Survey’s Midwest area.

Scientists don’t want to stop at Asian carp either. They are now working to develop a particle that could deliver a toxin to zebra mussels.

“We are looking at this as a production line,” Carl said.

Although he acknowledged that there are potential hazards to wading into such new technological waters, Carl stressed that the payoff could be huge if they are able to selectively kill invasive species.

“You are risking the money and the fact that you might fail, but if you succeed, the results are going to be very, very valuable,” Carl said.

A study by a coalition of Great Lakes states and cities has also explored a more controversial solution: Permanently cut the fish off from Lake Michigan by using sheet pile or impermeable land bridges that would effectively re-reverse the flow of the Chicago River.

The multibillion-dollar plan proposed three options that would be rolled out in multiple stages over the next several decades. A 2010 lawsuit by five Great Lakes states that is pending in U.S. District Court is also seeking to close locks in the Chicago area.

But until anything like that happens, Carl said the government must continue to consider interim strategies to fight back the invasive species.

We’ve discussed the battles over 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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