Risk Uncertain, Economic Costs Clear in Debate Over Asian Carp

Last week, a federal court in Chicago heard testimony from dozens of experts ranging from biologists to economists in an attempt to discern whether the continued operation of the Chicago area locks represents a "public nuisance" to our neighbors in the Great Lakes region. While we'll have to wait weeks for the judge's ruling on the legal questions at hand, scientific and economic testimony painted a clear picture - lock closure is expensive and the benefits are, at best, unknown; at worst, non-existent.

Proponents of closing down the waterways have long implied if a lone Asian carp makes it into the Great Lakes the war is lost, along with billions of dollars in economic activity related to fishing. Expert testimony this week, however, brought those assertions into question. In fact, the majority of testimony from experts during the hearing, as well as recent studies from researchers, illustrate a growing consensus among experts that Asian carp will likely be unable to easily establish a sustainable population in the Great Lakes.

The Chicago Tribune reports U.S Geological Survey biologist Duane Chapman testified that while an individual fish might survive in the lakes, there's no conclusive evidence that a large population could take hold. Recent research from an independent study by Konrad Dabrowski, a professor of aquatic sciences at Ohio State University, takes a stronger stance. Dabrowski's report, based on 15 years of experience studying Asian carp, concludes environmental factors like water temperature, depth, the speed of currents and food shortages may prevent Asian carp from spreading into the Great Lakes and make it "highly improbable" that spawning would occur.

Uncertainty around the science explains why the Great Lakes attorneys general have based their case on the idea of "reducing risk" rather than actually stopping the Asian carp. Unfortunately, it's not clear that lock closure actually would reduce the risk of Asian carp spreading. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service already determined there are at least 21 other pathways for Asian carp to be introduced into the Great Lakes, including human transport. Their analysis of the Corps' lock closure plans found that none of the several proposed closure routines would reduce the risk of Asian carp reaching the Great Lakes.

Despite the confusion, there were some black and white facts presented last week - namely, the economic consequences of shutting down our valuable waterway transportation routes. Dr. Joseph Schwieterman, the well known DePaul economist who originally evaluated the costs of lock closure, provided a great deal of insight into the costs imposed by closure. Costs such as negative impacts to Chicago public safety, decline in real estate value along the CAWS and devastating effects to the tourism industry in Chicago that relies almost solely on the locks for business all add up to millions of dollars lost and livelihoods of hundreds Americans down the drain. Schwieterman also discussed a startling new figure from a soon to be released study by the Ports of Indiana of more than $1 billion dollars in losses per year to the Indiana Lakeshore economy. Resources of this magnitude would be better served on researching a more comprehensive solution to this problem.

While the economic impacts of lock closure are immediate and detrimental to the region, the speculative case presented by the Great Lakes attorneys general this week underscores the degree to which rhetoric, rather than logic, has driven this issue. Let's hope the court sides with logic.