Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider Michigan’s motion to reopen the Wisconsin v. Illinois consent decree (now supported by every other Great Lakes state except Illinois) in response to the threat of Asian carp invading Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes ecosystem through the Chicago canal system. The federal government has sided with Illinois and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago in opposing Michigan and the other Great Lakes states. In her brief for the United States, the Solicitor General admits that federal agencies (the Corps and EPA) are aware of the threat that Asian carp pose to the Great Lakes and that the carp are an invasive species that have successfully reproduced in the Mississippi River system. The Solicitor General also recounts at length the efforts that the Corps and EPA have taken through the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee to stop the Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan. But noticeably absent from the Solicitor General’s brief is any acknowledgment of the federal government’s role in creating this ecological disaster.
Dan Egan of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first covered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s role in the introduction and spread of Asian carp back in 2006. After reading Dan’s story again, it’s surprising that most recent media accounts still report that Asian carp were released during floods into the Mississippi River from catfish farmers in Arkansas and Mississippi in the 1990s. The complete story is not so simple and demonstrates federal involvement and support of the introduction and propagation of Asian carp in the waters of the United States. To its credit, the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Asian Carp Management coordination website does admit that “Introductions of Asian carps are combined results of stockings directly by or authorized by various agencies, unauthorized stockings by private individuals, and unintentional escapes from university research facilities, federal and state agency facilities, and private aquaculture operations.”
The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to EPA seeking all documents related to EPA involvement in Asian carp research and importation and we are waiting for the documents to be produced. In the mean time, we have uncovered, through our own research, official EPA documents that clearly show the agency’s involvement with Asian carp.
For instance, in a Technology Assessment of Aquaculture Systems for Municipal Wastewater Treatment, funded by the EPA in 1984, the authors write, “A group of fishes know as Chinese carp, which include the silver, bighead, black, and grass carp, and the European common carp may be considered the most likely candidates for achieving the objective of wastewater treatment. These fish possess the feeding habits that meet the biological considerations for wastewater purification, but, the most important consideration is their hardiness and adaptability to a wide range of environmental conditions.” (See pages 12-14.)
Further, a 1983 Project Summary details the EPA-funded study of silver and bighead carp which concludes by recommending that “the addition of silver and bighead carp to a lagoon wastewater treatment system increases the efficiency of that system…the inclusion of these natural filters can increase treatment levels by as much as 25-30%.” The summary mentions that the research was funded wholly or in part by the US EPA.
We also have documents showing research conducted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service on bighead carp in 1993, references to other federal studies dating to the 1970s, and we suspect that our FOIA request will yield further information. While we support natural treatment methods for wastewater, the spread of Asian carp and the potential destruction of our native ecosystems is the direct result of research and funding provided by our federal government. While the federal government may have had only good intentions in facilitating the introduction and spread of Asian carp in the US, its role in creating this problem should not be overlooked by the U.S. Supreme Court. If the Solicitor General wants to tell the full story of federal management of Asian carp, she should mention the EPA’s active role in introducing these fish to the United States, and not just the recent control efforts.
Huge thanks to Wayne State University Law School Environmental Clinic student Paul Santi for doing most of this research, which was overseen and directed by Nick Schroeck of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. Nick has been doing a tremendous job of educating the public about this issue - he recently appeared on NPR's Science Friday - and is a great contact for more information.
Update: Sandra Svoboda of Metro Times has fantastic additional coverage in her article - Fishing for Truth: Did government agencies help create the Asian carp crisis? The article quotes Mike Freeze, a former Arkansas Game and Fish commissioner who worked for the agency in the late 1970s and saw first-hand the role of the federal government in bringing Asian carp to the United States. "One project was trying to see if silver and bighead carp could be used to clean up human sewage," Freeze says.