Asian Carp: History Offers an Important Lesson

American philosopher George Santayana once made a chilling comment about those who forget the lessons of history, saying: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Santayana’s comment is particular relevant considering the current, frantic effort to keep Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes.

T_J_OBrien_Lock_and_Dam_CorpsA heated debate is brewing over whether to close locks in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to prevent Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan and, ultimately, colonizing all the Great Lakes. Shipping interests argue that closing the canal would hurt their industry.

The question at hand is whether dramatic — perhaps radical — action is needed to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. That’s where history can teach government officials an important lesson.

The historical record shows that the plague of invasive species wreaking ecological and economic havoc in the Great Lakes was a largely preventable problem. This ecological train wreck wasn’t avoided because federal agencies in the U.S. and Canada repeatedly ignored the threat that ocean freighters’ ballast water discharges posed to the lakes until it was too late.

The results have been devastating. The 57 invaders that ocean freighters dumped in the Great Lakes over the past five decades now cause between $200 million and $400 million damage annually. Two of the worst invaders, zebra and quagga mussels, are causing the most profound ecological changes in the Great in recorded history.

Now the lakes face a major new threat in the form of Asian carp. The massive fish, which can grow to 100 pounds, could take a huge bite out of a food chain that sustains the Great Lakes $7 billion per year fishery.

One species of Asian carp, the silver carp, rockets out of the water when agitated by boat motors. The fish pose potentially lethal threats to boaters and would create unprecedented challenges for the Great Lakes’ $11 billion recreational boating economy.

Asian-carp-jumpingTo allow beastly Asian carp to infest the Great Lakes, for the sake of a much less valuable shipping trade in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, makes no sense.

Then again, it made no sense for the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards to ignore repeated studies that showed ocean freighters were importing zebra mussels and dozens of other foreign species into the Great Lakes in ballast water tanks.

The U.S. and Canada refused to crack down on those ballast water discharges until 2006 — 25 years after the problem was documented — because government agencies put the shipping industry’s interests above the health of Great Lakes ecosystems and the numerous services the lakes provide.

Government agencies face a similar choice today: Protect the Great Lakes from Asian carp by closing locks in the Chicago canal, or bow to a marginal shipping trade and keep the locks open.

The moment is at hand when government officials charged with protecting the Great Lakes must decide whether to heed the lessons of history or repeat the appalling mistakes of the past.

Take Action: Tell the Corps of Engineers to learn from the past and protect the Great Lakes from Asian carp today.