Could a Lawsuit Stop the Carp Invasion?

The fate of the Great Lakes, and its fishery that's worth $7 billion a year, could rest on closing a few locks and gates in Illinois. And, time is running out.

That's what five Attorneys General suggested Monday in the latest lawsuit to keep Asian carp out of the country's most valuable freshwater fishery. In the suit, five Great Lakes states accuse the United States Army Corps of Engineers and the Chicago water authority of creating a public nuisance by not closing the locks and gates on waters that connect the carp infested Mississippi River and Lake Michigan. Federal law prohibits interstate movement of harmful species.

"Asian carp will kill jobs and ruin our way of life," Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox wrote in a press release. "We cannot afford more bureaucratic delays -- every action must be taken to protect the Great Lakes."

Similar lawsuits were brought before the U.S. Supreme Court twice this year and failed both times. But the game has changed significantly since June, when a 20-pound Asian carp was caught in Illinois just six miles downstream from Lake Michigan. Somehow, the fish had made it past the electrical barriers that were supposed to keep it from swimming that far upstream.

The five states, which include Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Minnesota, argue that the federal government is moving too slowly and closing the waterway is now the only option to stop the carp. But the federal government and Chicago officials worry that closing the locks will greatly damage local commerce and hurt Illinois' economy.

Last week Ohio Governor Ted Strickland wrote a formal letter to the White House asking President Barack Obama (a former Chicago resident and Illinois Senator) to speed up the process and support closing the locks.

"By the time we identify a better solution to the permanent physical barrier, if there is one, it will be too late. We cannot tolerate further delays in the construction of a physical barrier, nor maintain the current 'study and monitor' status quo as the only solution," Strickland wrote. So far, the federal government has already spent about $80 million trying to stop the fish.

While politicians and bureaucrats argue about the best way to stop the invasive fish, there is one thing everyone can agree on, if a large population of Asian carp reaches the Great Lakes it would mean certain death for the fishery. Asian carp can weigh up to 100 pounds, and they eat 40 percent of their body weight each day. They were originally brought to the U.S. in the 1970s to clean fish farms in the South. But the fish escaped through floodwaters and found their way into the Mississippi. They have been moving north ever since.

Once Asian carp grow large enough, they have virtually no natural predators and effectively wipeout the bottom half of the food chain. And according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Great Lakes are similar to the Asian carps' home waters.