Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Asian Carp threatens to take down those cutesy boat rides on Lake Michigan

It has been 14 years since I last got on board one of those boats that gives people a tour of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. In fact, I can only recall having been on those boats twice during my lifetime, which for all I know may be two times more than many life-long Chicagoans.

What can I say. New Yorkers have the Statue of Liberty that they take for granted. We Chicagoans have those boat rides out into the lake.

BUT LIKE MANY a Chicagoan, I am aware of those rides because I see how aggressively they market themselves to the tourists who come to our wonderful city. They do offer a unique view of the Chicago skyline.

I recall that boatride I took in 1996 (it was the Democratic National Convention, and I was on board a boat with delegates from across the nation, notebook in hand, just in case somebody said or did something significant or embarrassing that would be newsworthy).

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency put together this guide to help people identify the various species of fish known collectively as the Asian Carp.

As it turns out, I didn’t get any “news” out of the ride. But I still remember seeing the Sears Tower (as it was known then) from straight east out in Lake Michigan. That building never loomed so mightily over downtown Chicago as it did that night in my mind.

In fact, ever since, I have wondered how catastrophic it would be to the city if something were to happen that were to knock down the Willis Tower. One blow really could take out the entire downtown business district, along with surrounding neighborhoods.

THE POINT IS that this is a thought that likely would never have occurred to me had I not gotten the lakeview viewpoint of the building and the downtown skyline as a whole.

Anyway, this is what passed through my mind when I read the Chicago Tribune account Tuesday (,0,3085886.story) of how the boat owners are complaining about proposals by the Army Corps of Engineers to close the locks that allow boat traffic to go from the Chicago River to Lake Michigan (and back again), all in an attempt to put a stop to the Asian Carp.

Nothing is definite yet, but the newspaper reported that one proposal under consideration is to close off the access for four days per week – in hopes that such a move could slow the path of the carp (who have most recently been found in the parts of the river just outside of Chicago proper) from getting into the Great Lakes.

Making it to the lakes would cause the potential for ecological devastation represented by the carp, which eat everything in sight – thereby taking away sustenance for other species living in the water.

NOW TO SOME people, this plan is unacceptable. They want the locks closed altogether. They want to view the fact that the Chicago River flow was ever reversed by man as a serious mistake, which we are now paying for with this Asian Carp controversy.

But to the boat owners, that would take away so many days that they could offer their boat rides to the people from Keokuk, Pasadena or Paris (not the one in Southern Illinois) that they are complaining it will drive them broke.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think our company would be so severely threatened by a fish,” the owner of one company that has operated boat tours in Chicago since 1939 told the Tribune.

I don’t blame him for being concerned. His income is being threatened by something beyond his control. With the current economic conditions, finding employment elsewhere could turn out to be very difficult.

BUT I FIND it a bit flippant to dismiss this issue as being about mere “fish.”

Like I have written before, I understand the threat that the Asian Carp poses to our environment, primarily because it was a species that was never intended to be here.

The Army Corps of Engineers (which in the past has been unsuccessful in slowing up the carp’s path – they supposedly have been seen as close as 8 miles from Lake Michigan, although some say their DNA has been found in the lake itself) says it plans to make recommendations about what should be done, and hopes to implement recommendations some time about April 1.

I’m sure those who will lose economically think April Fool’s Day is a nasty joke on them. But my point in all of this is to remind people that while the potential for ecological damage is real and should not be ignored, there are the economic concerns – and not just from the companies offering boat rides.

THE REASON THE flow of the Chicago River was altered (away from the lake) was to improve the access for boats engaged in shipping. There are many goods that are best sent down the river to get them throughtout the Midwestern U.S.

Closing the locks would also close off those shipping routes.

I understand that some are angry about this situation, and it seems like they now want to use Chicago as the whipping boy, of sorts, for this issue. But it wasn’t Chicago that introduced the Asian Carp to the area, and in some ways, the city is just as much a victim of this situation as anyone else (despite all the attempts by surrounding states to file lawsuits shifting blame to Chicago and Illinois)


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