Coast Guard OKs Operation of Asian Carp Electric Fence

Published March 1, 2009

An electric barrier designed to keep invasive Asian carp out of Lake Michigan will be turned on at partial strength through this summer, with the U.S. Coast Guard having approved its operation. The barrier on the Illinois River will operate at one-quarter power until full-power safety tests are completed, likely this summer.

The demand to turn on the barrier intensified after a group of 29 U.S. senators and congressmen wrote the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard in early December asking why the project was taking so long to be activated.

Great Lakes Disruption Threatened

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, if Asian carp reach Lake Michigan and the surrounding Great Lakes, the fish will disrupt the natural food chain and ecosystem, ultimately becoming a dominant species.

Asian carp can grow up to 100 pounds. Currently, the only thing standing in the way of these massive fish and the Great Lakes is a small, six-year-old, experimental barrier that does not operate at a capacity powerful enough to expel juvenile carp.

The carp were imported by Arkansas catfish farmers in the 1970s to remove algae and suspended matter from their ponds, but some of the fish escaped containment ponds during regional flooding in the early 1990s and started migrating north. They have now become the dominant species in much of the Illinois and Mississippi River systems.

Safety Issues Remain

The permanent Illinois River electrical barrier system, built in 2006 but not yet placed into operation, has been undergoing a series of safety tests. The barrier can operate at four volts per inch, but the Coast Guard fears using it at full strength would pose a safety risk to anyone who might fall overboard near the barrier and for cargo ships transporting flammable liquids and gases.

EPA says the barrier “poses no threat to people,” but the Coast Guard wants more testing.

Coast Guard Captain Bruce Jones expressed concerns about the barrier in a December 15 email to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I remain very concerned about the potential for personal injury or death to any person who may be immersed in the water … as well as the potential for sparking between vessels, particularly those carrying highly volatile cargoes such as gasoline,” wrote Jones.

Jones added, “I am satisfied that the many safety measures implemented to date reduce these risks to acceptable levels at currents of one volt per inch.”

Activation Urged

Others remain concerned operation of the barrier at such a low power will not be effective in staving off an ecological disaster on the Great Lakes.

“We understand the safety concerns involved with an electric barrier in the waterway, but this is piecemeal protection of the Great Lakes, as federal officials take small steps in an effort to placate the different parties involved. The result may be no protection at all,” argued the Journal Sentinel in a December 18 house editorial.

“The carp are only about 45 miles from Lake Michigan,” the Journal Sentinel added.

“Once they were to get into Lake Michigan, there’s nothing to stop them from getting into the other Great Lakes, and impacting all of the Great Lakes,” said Mike Hoff, an aquatic nuisance species regional coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We don’t want healthy Asian carp.”

Contested Authority

The Coast Guard responded to criticism its safety concerns were stalling operation of the barrier by asserting the Army Corps could turn on the barrier any time it wants to, with or without Coast Guard permission.

Not everyone agrees.

“The Illinois Department of Natural Resources issued the construction permit for the fish barrier. They wrote in the condition of construction that the barrier could only be turned on if the Coast Guard approved its safety,” said Lynn Muench, senior vice president of the American Waterways Operators.

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.