Great Lakes Asian Carp Invasion Report

April 2012– Asian carp don’t visit to share knowledge, but THE LAST COLUMNIST shares this Asian carp research paper written at Wayne State University in Detroit. This report covers political, environmental, cultural, historical and economic aspects of the Asian carp crisis from a “public policy” perspective. It re-examines some issues based on different policy definitions. Preceding the report is a letter sent to President Obama on April 26, 2012, asking him to consider immediate action to protect the Great Lakes ecosystem.


Dear Mr. President:

Michigan residents face an imminent threat. Their food supply, livelihood and way of life could disappear. If Asian carp invade the Great Lakes ecosystem, environmental destruction is inevitable. An Executive Order forcing the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal’s closure will curtail an environmental catastrophe.

Of course, an immediate closure will inflict economic hardship on the $1.5 billion Illinois shipping industry. However, as a market instrument, it will inspire innovation. Americans will find solutions to reverse economic losses. Short-term losses are miniscule, compared to long-term problems an Asian carp onslaught will have on the Great Lakes region. If economics drives the rational decision-making process, consider the Great Lakes fishery is valued at $7 billion.

Michigan’s travel, boating and fishing industries have a combined value of $14 billion and create 830,000 jobs, according to the Office of the Great Lakes & Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The region has a $2.6 billion waterfowl hunting industry. A loss of native fish biomass due to Asian carp feeding habits will adversely affect these industries. An invasion will cause a domino effect— destroying the food chain, commerce and quality of life for millions of Americans. Asian carp also create a public health hazard by jumping out of the water and injuring boaters.

Current short-term solutions such as nets, acoustic water guns and poison food pellets will work better with a policy of containment. Please consider an immediate canal closure and a long-term solution based on the study titled, “Restoring the Natural Divide.” As you know, this study from the Great Lakes Commission recommends permanent barriers to separate the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds and new locks for the shipping industry. Regardless of short-term economic losses, the canal should close today before we lose our valuable natural resources.

Thank you for your time, Mr. President.


The Great Lakes Asian Carp Invasion

The Problem and Its Resolution

Asian carp have caused massive environmental damage in the Mississippi River and its tributaries. These destructive fish migrated north from the lower Mississippi River to waters around Chicago, Illinois. They are poised to invade the Great Lakes through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal system, which artificially connects the Great Lakes and Mississippi River ecosystems.

Most wildlife biologists believe a Great Lakes Asian carp invasion will cause an environmental catastrophe. The carp’s rapid reproduction rates and destructive feeding habits cause environmental damage and starve out native fish species. The federal government must implement an effective regulatory policy to stop Asian carp and eradicate the population. Otherwise, the invasive species will destroy the Great Lakes’ ecosystem and mufti-billion-dollar fishing and tourism industry.

An immediate solution, short of wide-scale poisoning, is to close the canal. Shipping companies use the canal to transport goods. They claim the region will suffer economic losses, if ships cannot pass through the canal. The Army Corps of Engineers installed an electric fence barrier between the canal system and Lake Michigan to electrocute Asian carp trying to enter Lake Michigan when ships travel back and forth. Evidence shows it is an inadequate solution. The fence has little effect, especially when water levels are high. Fish also travel in ballast water retained by ships.

Political influence peddling by powerful special interest groups poses the biggest obstacle to policy formation regarding a canal closure. The shipping industry is accused of contributing money to state and federal legislators who refuse to debate closing the canal.

This crisis affects Americans under three categories as applied to the “Different Types of Goods” model. It fits the definition of affecting the COMMON POOL GOODS– Asian carp will destroy Great Lakes fish stocks in relation to recreational activities and a food supply shared by millions of Midwest residents and tourists. Low-income families depend on fishing as a cheap source of food, and Asian carp are not considered a delicacy (in the United States). The crisis also falls under PRIVATE GOODS– it economically affects the fishing and tourism industries if no native/game fish species exist after Asian carp destroy them. It affects TOLL GOODS– Great Lakes states charge fees for fishing licenses, state park permits for fishing and registering boats. This will cause massive revenue losses, as trout and salmon fishing enthusiasts travel to other regions in the United States or Canada to buy licenses and permits.

An effective environmental policy must be implemented by the Executive or Legislative branch of government to close the canal and save the Great Lakes ecosystem. An effective policy will address the interests of environmentalists, as well as the shipping, fishing and tourism industries.

A viable solution to the Asian carp crisis has been proposed. It is discussed in this paper under the heading, “Agenda Status of the Problem” (subheading: “Executive Branch and Special Interest Groups in the media”).

History and Context

Environmental threats posed by Asian carp entering the Great Lakes ecosystem have not always existed. The crisis traces its roots back to farming methods during the 1970s and flooding along the Mississippi River in the mid-1990s. A Great Lakes Asian carp exodus is possible due to the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal’s construction in the early 1900s.

Travel between the Mississippi and Great Lakes did not become possible until the canal’s construction. Originally built to flush out Chicago’s waste water with Lake Michigan water, it became a convenient way to transport freight between the previously divided ecosystems. The perversion of the canal’s original purpose— from sanitation system to an express transportation route— is the foundation of a new lawsuit requesting its closure.

Farming solution sets stage for bigger problem

In the 1970s, Catfish farmers in the southern United States imported Asian carp from China. Farmers needed a safe way to manage plankton accumulating on the surfaces of catfish ponds located near the lower Mississippi River. Asian carp are considered “top-feeders” in aquatic ecosystems, so they safely cleared catfish ponds of unwanted plankton that impeded the feeding habits of catfish.

Mississippi flooding in the 1990s caused catfish ponds to overflow their banks. Asian carp escaped confinement and migrated north. Since the fish species reproduce at an alarming rate, they quickly invaded large areas of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. According to recent data provided by an Asian carp watchdog group, Asian carp now count for 95 percent of biomass found in many sections of the Mississippi watershed. Biomass data and the affect this invasive species has on native fish provides a glimpse into the Great Lakes’ future, if an effective policy to stop the Asian carp advance is not implemented.

The lack of a comprehensive policy angers environmentalists, causes harm to recreational boaters and threatens the commercial fishing industry. When it comes to a federal policy to resolve the Asian carp crisis, the actions are passive, instead of pro-active.

Electric fence

The only federal policy to stop, or slow, the carp’s advance into the Great Lakes is based on a transportation policy addressing the needs of the shipping industry. It resulted in the electric barrier fence constructed between the Chicago canal and Lake Michigan to humor environmentalists, but they are not laughing. It only caters to special interest groups tied to interstate commerce. The fence keeps the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal open, benefiting the shipping industry, but does not address concerns held by environmental, fishing and tourism interests who define the crisis as a threat to Great Lakes health and the public good.

Blessing in disguise? NO

State and local governments in states bordering the Mississippi River have defined the problem as an opportunity to feed the masses. They have suggested a policy to promote massive commercial and sport fishing operations to reduce the fish population. They hope to educate the public about the joys of eating Asian carp.

Several school districts have experimented with serving Asian carp as part of a healthy school lunch program. This policy would save taxpayers money, but it is a long way from becoming an affective policy to eradicate the fish population due to stigmas about eating domestic carp. However, this policy is about to conflict with a new federal policy implementation involving the testing of poison food pellets on Asian carp, which is discussed under the heading, “The Decision Making Context” (subheading “conflict, constraint and complexity in decision making process”).

An education policy that addresses some way of controlling Asian carp before they reach the Great Lakes is better than no policy. Using the fish as a food source would lessen the threat to the Great Lakes, so there is relevance as a solution. Regardless, the federal government must close the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, eradicate Asian carp and implement an alternative shipping method to satisfy all interest groups.

Agenda Status of the Problem

This environmental crisis has made its way onto state and federal government agendas thanks to media attention, concerned government officials and public awareness campaigns by special interest groups. Organizations and government officials have used outside and inside initiation, mobilization and consolidation to put the crisis on public agendas.

Media Attention:

The media has defined Asian carp as a threat to the public good. When the news media highlights a problem that could affect the quality of life, it increases the public’s involvement. This is a form of “outside initiation.” In publications such as Time magazine, editors have used headlines like “Carp-Pocalypse” to suggest the apocalyptic nature of the environmental catastrophe facing the Great Lakes. Time magazine said Asian carp could destroy the Great Lakes ecosystem and rob the public of its environmental treasures, defining the crisis as a threat to a “common pool goods.”

Executive Branch and Special Interest Groups in the media

In February 2012, regional and national newspapers reported on an independent study proposed by the Great Lakes Commission (GLC) and the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Cities Initiative (GLSLCI). The proposal, titled, “Restoring the Natural Divide,” recommends permanent barriers to “sever a man made link” the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal provides between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River ecosystems.

The GLC and GLSLCI– comprised of government officials, agencies and special interest groups from the U.S. and Canada– used a press conference to draw media and public attention to the study. In public policy, this is considered “outside initiation” and “mobilization.”

The Ann Arbor Journal discussed the proposal in an article titled, “Study calls for permanent Asian carp barrier.” The Michigan-based newspaper noted the study offers various solutions. The most feasible involves closing the current canal system and constructing a new, state-of-the-art series of locks. This would address short-term environmental concerns and long-term economic concerns. The proposal made by the GLC/GLSLCI could take 20-50 years to complete.

Environmental, fishing, boating and tourism-based interest groups want a permanent closure now. The Illinois shipping industry, valued at $1.5 billion, has a large stake in keeping a canal closure off government agendas. The industry opposes a closure, claiming the action would damage the region’s economy and cause flooding (if the canal system cannot be used to access the Great Lakes). One way to keep a permanent closure off the agenda is by promoting short-term solutions and making campaign contributions to congressional members who vote against a closure.

However, shipping losses are miniscule compared to the economic and environmental losses an Asian carp invasion will inflict on the Great Lakes region. This comparison, with facts and figures, is discussed in complete detail later under the heading, “Institutional Context of the Problem.”

President Obama has not yet endorsed separating the two ecosystems or any part of the independent study submitted by the GLC/GLSLCI. The president, taking into consideration all sides, has authorized short-term solutions to keep the canal open (and the carp at bay) while waiting for the Army Corps of Engineers to submit a report on a long-term solution to the Asian carp crisis (report is due in 2015). The GLC/GLSLCI study has solutions for all sides, and members hope the Army Corps of Engineers considers the proposals before finalizing their report in 2015.

President Obama pledged another $50 million for short-term solutions in 2012. Initiatives include water sampling for Asian carp DNA, using nets, testing chemicals to lure carp into traps and testing an acoustic water gun to see if sound waves can keep Asian carp away from Great Lakes entry points. The problem is these solutions only address ways to avoid a closure.

Several governors and officials from the EPA, Department of the Interior, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard attended an “Asian Carp Summit” in 2010 held by President Obama at the White House to address public, special interest group and state government concerns, according to the Traverse City Record-Eagle. This showed the importance of the matter in Obama’s agenda, and it led to actions going into effect in 2012. This discussion of how to stop Asian carp is a form of “consolidation” agenda setting.

Legislative agenda in the media

U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (MI) called Asian carp “the fish that keeps me awake at night,” according to an article in Detroit’s Metro Times newspaper. Senator Stabenow has tried various methods of “mobilization” and “inside initiation” to fight the Asian carp crisis by drawing media attention and introducing bipartisan legislation to close the canal. This legislation has failed to garner adequate support in the U.S. Congress. In recent years, Stabenow has become one of the main opponents of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The Detroit Free Press, Detroit News and hundreds of other publications have also printed special sections and numerous articles on the Asian carp crisis in recent years.

Members of a Minnesota congressional delegation have recently introduced legislation that would require the Army Corps of Engineers to address the Asian carp crisis that could spill into Minnesota waters.

Details of their legislative attempts are discussed in detail under the heading, “Key Actors and Relationships Surrounding the Problem.”

Judicial agenda

Five states increased public awareness by attempting to put Asian carp on the judicial agenda in 2010. According to the Michigan Policy Network, the Attorneys General of five states sued the Army Corps of Engineers in the United States Supreme Court to shut down the canal. The court threw out the case, but it is being appealed under a different argument.

The new complaint argues the canal system, built in the early 1900s, was built to flush waste water out of Chicago and not for shipping freight between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River. This is “mobilization” and “consolidation” agenda setting. As long as the media draws attention to the environmental crisis facing the Great Lakes, the issue will remain on government agendas.

Key Actors and Relationships Surrounding the Problem

A wide assortment of special interest groups, federal agencies, congressional members and presidential advisers have come together to work on an effective Asian carp policy. These groups represent a pluralist network, but they also make up an “iron triangle” of key actors that depend on each other to solve problems in a massive bureaucracy. This coalition does not necessarily agree on how to solve the Asian carp crisis, but key actors believe a change in public policy must occur to prevent an environmental catastrophe.

Executive level

Key actors at the executive branch of government are President Obama and John Goss— the Asian carp Program Director for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Appointed by President Obama, Goss will ensure coordination among government agencies and recommend the best solution for stopping the Asian carp onslaught.

Government agencies and coalitions like the Great Lakes Commission, Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, United States Geological Survey and the Army Corps of Engineers have a vital role in finding solutions that Goss will evaluate and recommend to the president. Leon Carl, the Midwest Regional Executive for the USGS, says the agency is working on scientific solutions, while the Corps is studying the feasibility of mechanical solutions.


Special interest groups representing environmentalists, conservation groups and the sport fishing industry have played a major role in shaping policy through congressional lobbying efforts and by asking the public to support pending anti-carp legislation in Congress. Organizations like the National Wildlife Federation, Michigan United Conservation Clubs and sport fishing interests put pressure on individual members of congress.

Legislative level

Key congressional players from Michigan are U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow and U.S. Representative Dave Camp. On March 3, 2011, they authored bills S 471 and H.R. 892, named the “Stop Asian Carp Act.” Camp’s bill made it to the House subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs, led by Chairman John Fleming of Louisiana, while Stabenow’s bill was sent to the Senate’s Environmental and Public Works committee, chaired by Barbara Boxer of California.

Keith Ellison, Erik Paulsen and Timothy Walz— three Minnesota congressmen—introduced a bill titled, “H.R. 4146 Upper Mississippi CARP Act” on March 3, 2012, “to authorize the Secretary of the Army to take actions to manage the threat of Asian carp traveling up the Mississippi River in the State of Minnesota, and for other purposes.” It went to the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee led by Chairman John Mica.

This coalition of government agencies, special interest groups, advisers and congressional leaders makes up an “iron triangle” within a pluralist network. Interest groups fund studies to influence public opinion, which affects government agencies and leaders. They also send lobbyists and campaign contributions, so congressional members pass environmental legislation.

The Decision Making Context

Until the late 1990s, the federal government never needed a policy to address a “Great Lakes Asian carp crisis.” Since a problem became apparent, it has made one policy decision: install an electric fence barrier to stop carp from entering the Great Lakes.

The electric fence constitutes an “incremental decision making” policy process, which is also known as “satisficing.” According to Carter Wilson, in his book, Public Policy: Continuity and Change, “satisficing” attempts to satisfy all perspectives, especially well-established special interest groups hoping to maintain the status quo.

This fence satisfies powerful shipping interest groups (opposing a canal closure) on economic grounds, since it enables ships to travel between waterways. The policy also allows the government to tell opposition groups requesting a solution that it is addressing the Asian carp problem.

Other policy ideas based on “satisficing” will begin this year, including the use of chemicals, sound waves and nets to stop the carp’s advance. By implementing such measures, the government continues to cater to powerful shipping interests by keeping the canal open.

Special interest groups in favor of a canal closure must wait for the “rational decision making” process to happen, which involves the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps has until 2015 to assess policy proposals advocating the canal’s closure. According to the GLC study, it will cost billions of dollars and could take 20 years to separate the two waterways with an alternative set of canal locks. Regardless of cost, the study outlines the best solution to stop invasive species from entering the Great Lakes on the western front.

Federal, state and local governments are also trying to convince commercial fishing vessels and individuals to catch Asian carp to use as food. These solutions are better than relying on an inferior electric fence, but closing the canal is the only “rational” solution to stop the Asian carp. Scientists must also find an environmentally safe way to kill the fish.

The “incremental decision making” process, which involves electric fences, sound waves, chemicals, poison and nets to keep the canal open, is probably the only policy that will succeed in the world of political give-and-take.

Conflict, constraint and complexity in decision making process

The complexity of an “open canal” federal policy that depends on various federal government agencies and the commercial fishing industry working together will prove difficult, and dangerous, when implemented in conjunction with conflicting policies proposed by state and local officials.

One federal government policy going into effect involves the United States Geological Survey using chemicals and poison food pellets to destroy or deter Asian carp. A lack of policy constraint in this area will cause a public health crisis. At the same time the U.S.G.S. begins to use chemicals and poison, local and state school boards, as previously stated, are advocating a policy to put Asian carp on the school lunch menu.

Local officials are also telling residents they can help control the fish population by catching and eating Asian carp. Residents who listen to local governments telling them to eat carp will not necessarily hear the warnings about the U.S.G.S. testing poison. This will create a larger crisis. A wide-scale fish kill is the best solution, if it does not destroy the surrounding environment and cause a public health risk.

The best solution to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes is to follow the recommendations of the GLC; Separate the waterways in stages and build a new set of locks to bypass the current system. Until then, the only viable solutions involve electric shock, sound waves and giant nets. Policy makers will probably focus on the affect a closure will have on the powerful shipping industry, practicing these incremental solutions and catering to shipping interests to secure campaign contributions and keep the status quo.

Implementing Decisions and Policies

Defining government instruments

The use of short-term solutions is definitely a mixed instruments approach involving market, direct government and voluntary instruments.

One example of market instrument implementation involves the commercial fishing industry. According to White House Asian carp Program Director John Goss, the government has hired commercial fishing companies to reduce the carp population. The government will provide new types of nets and other equipment to increase fish harvests. Commercial fishing companies will work independently and with government agencies testing new ideas to eradicate Asian carp. This will combine direct government and market instruments.

Direct government instruments include government agencies testing and implementing ideas while the Army Corps of Engineers considers a canal closure. The U.S.G.S will test chemicals and poison food pellets on Asian carp, while the Corps and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service test sound waves and take water samples. The Obama administration will expand the use of federal officials to stop people from smuggling carp across state and international borders. However, these policy implementations all avoid the best policy solution to protect the Great Lakes: closing the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The “cost and economic impact” controversy surrounding a closure has made this solution the most vulnerable.

Part of the voluntary instrument side involves local governments asking citizens to go Asian carp fishing and eat what they catch. They are also trying to put Asian carp on the school lunch program. Some officials argue this would provide an economical solution to educational expenses, since the government is paying commercial fishing companies to catch Asian carp. The stigma surrounding domestic carp consumption will cause a problem, which will be discussed under the subheading “Cultural traditions, influences and prejudices” in the next section heading: “Institutional Context of the Problem.”

Institutional Context of the Problem

Deceptive economic arguments affect decisions

Lobbyists representing the shipping industry make deceptive economic-impact arguments regarding a canal closure. The industry claims a closure would inflict economic hardship on the $1.5 billion Illinois shipping industry, cause thousands of job losses and increase transportation costs for other businesses. This argument is pale in comparison to the Great Lakes fishery, which is valued at $7 billion, according to Noah D. Hall’s, The North American Great Lakes, in The Evolution of the Law and Politics of Water, 281. Of course, no price can be placed on the natural beauty and cultural contributions the Great Lakes ecosystem provides to day-to-day human existence, but statistics prove this unique environment has economic value.

Michigan’s tourism, fishing and charter-boat industries have a combined value of $14 billion and create 830,000 jobs, according to the Office of the Great Lakes & Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, MI Great Lakes Plan, 1 (January 2009). The entire Great Lakes region also has an annual $2.6 billion waterfowl hunting industry. A loss of native fish biomass, due to the predatory Asian carp, will affect waterfowl feeding habits and reduce food supplies for humans. Environmental destruction will affect all of these industries, as the destructive Asian carp feeding habits reduce native fish populations and, in turn, the waterfowl that feed on them. Asian carp also create a public health hazard; They weigh up to 70 pounds and jump out of the water, injuring unsuspecting boaters.

The importance of one business entity over the other is due to successful lobbying efforts by the shipping industry, which is highly organized. Interest groups lobbying for environmental, sport fishing, hunting, tourism and boating interests are less organized.

Cultural traditions, influence and prejudices

In the U.S., cultural traditions and environmental appreciation influence Great Lakes residents to form interest groups. They support a canal closure to prevent environmental destruction and maintain their way of life. Residents resist government requests to participate in a “voluntary instrument” policy, which involves catching and eating Asian carp.

A psychological, sociological and environmental stigma surrounds domestic carp: “Carp are bottom feeders, consuming heavy metals and other pollutants in riverbeds. Carp are ugly. Carp taste like carp. Carp are still ugly. Only poor people fish for carp and eat them.”

For these and other reasons, many Americans are reluctant to voluntarily catch and eat Asian carp as a way to control or eradicate the invasive species, even though Asian carp are “top-feeders.” An extensive government re-education program would have to take place, and it probably would not change the public’s perception. And, as stated, once government agencies begin to test poisons on Asian carp and implement the solution as a matter of public policy, it will become dangerous to eat any fish caught in Chicago waterways or elsewhere.

International differences

When comparing how other countries might address this problem, Germany and Japan would have vastly different policy approaches based on their system of government. From the environmental perspective, a canal closure proposal would prove successful under Germany’s system. Green Party environmentalists heavily influence decisions.

Japan’s system is least likely to consider a canal closure, since business and bureaucracy formulate policy leaving out interest groups. Environmental, tourism and sport-fishing interest groups would not be heard, as the shipping industry’s voice weighs heavily on policy debate and formation. Of course, due to the nature of Japanese society, citizens would consume Asian carp if the government said it would benefit society. In addition, carp are considered a common meal in Asian countries. There would not be a problem convincing the population to eat Asian carp.

Political parties and institutions: $ talks

In the U.S., business interests overwhelmingly dictate policy to political institutions and political parties. Corporations, as in the shipping industry for Asian carp, have the money to influence political institutions and political parties.


The Great Lakes Asian carp crisis is due to government mismanagement and disrespect of a true paradise. The government built a canal to use Lake Michigan as Chicago’s toilet. It allowed the importation of Asian carp to help southern catfish farmers control algae in their ponds and will not address the catastrophic problem created by that decision. Of course, the same government connected the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean with the St. Lawrence Seaway to accommodate business interests. That engineering disaster has cost society far more in environmental problems than it has benefited society.

To stop environmental destruction, we must rely on government officials, who avoid working in the best interest of the majority they represent. Shipping industry profiteers do not represent the best interests and wishes of the majority of the Great Lakes’ population.

The silent and disorganized majority of conservationists, environmentalists, naturalists and biologists, as well as fishing, hunting and bird-watching enthusiasts must rise up to form a viable coalition and petition the elitist government institutions with legitimate grievances to save the Great Lakes ecosystem from extinction. There is no difference between democrats and republicans when it comes to who allowed the Asian carp problem to escalate into a crisis. The United States has a one-party political system masquerading as a two-party system.

By examining the way public policy is formulated, or ignored, it has become obvious the federal government tells time using a geologic clock with increments measured in eons instead of minutes. It appears that congressional committees, government agencies and powerful special interest groups in iron triangles make it impossible to fix problems in a timely manner. Due to the sloth-like nature of policy formation, the “Great Lakes Asian carp crisis” will turn into the “Great Lakes Asian Carp Environmental Catastrophe.” Then the government and business interests will create new agencies and businesses to charge taxpayers for cleaning up the destruction left in their wake.

For past Asian carp commentary, visit this JULY 2011 UPDATE.

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South End research paper