This summer, Allison Gruber, an undergraduate at Duke University, participated in the Stanback Internship Program, spending the summer working with me here in Chicago on our invasive species project. Allison’s work has been hugely helpful to me this summer as we’ve worked on the range of water and transportation policy problems that are revealed by the inadaquacies of the infrastructure that is allowing the advance of the Asian carp toward the Great Lakes through the Chicago Waterway System – everything from the need to eliminate sewage and stormwater overflows to the need for Chicago to develop a comprehensive regional plan that links up its water and rail transportation systems in a more efficient and sustainable way.
Today is the last day of Allison’s internship. I asked her to write a short “guest blog” describing her experiences working with me at NRDC this summer:
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Kentucky tuna, Shanghai bass, silverfin, and Midwest mahi-mahi (coined by NRDC’s own Josh Mogerman) are just a few of the names suggested as part of an Asian carp marketing strategy. Some advocates in the region are hoping that eliminating the connection to slang innuendo which doesn’t exactly paint an appetizing dinner-plate picture will help the invasive species gain broader appeal. Calls for rebranding have only gained steam with Illinois’ efforts to subsidize commercial Asian carp fishing and Governor Quinn’s proclamation that “if you can’t beat ‘em, you eat ‘em.”
These attempts to establish Asian carp as fine cuisine have provided comic relief during my Invasive Species Policy and Advocacy summer internship in the NRDC’s Chicago office. Growing up in coastal southern California, I chose to pursue environmental studies at Duke University very much because of my childhood days spent exploring tide pools and their creatures, swimming in the gently rippling, picturesque ocean and playing along the vast stretches of sandy, sparkling beach. But, my hometown’s shore is free of giant jumping fish (at least for the time being), and I knew relatively little about the mounting Asian carp controversy in the Great Lakes when starting my internship. My only formal introduction was listening to Dr. David Lodge’s guest lecture last spring discussing his team’s development of the eDNA technique used to confirm the presence of Asian carp in the Chicago Area Waterways System (CAWS).
Throughout my time in Chicago, I’ve realized just how much is at stake in this debacle through the various projects I’ve had the chance to work on- examining reports on carp breeding and feeding habits, exploring possible waterway floodplain connections, researching the impacts of other Great Lakes aquatic invasive species, reading up on the history of the Chicago River, investigating Great Lakes water quality standards and listening in on numerous meetings related to the Asian carp. Odd as this might have seemed to me a few months ago, I’ve even spent a chunk of the summer researching wastewater treatment processes, attempting to understand how upgrades to the region’s facilities could boost water quality in conjunction with the other investments needed to achieve a permanent separation.
Meanwhile, several noteworthy “carp alerts” have surfaced. First came reports of a substantial number of positive eDNA hits for Asian carp in the CAWS. Soon after, a fisherman contracted by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources captured a live Bighead carp in Lake Calumet a mere six miles from Lake Michigan. Just a week later, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources announced the discovery of a spawning carp population in the Wabash River in Indiana, which can connect to Lake Erie under certain flooding conditions.
Matching these additions to the growing pool of scientific evidence, the calls for action from the public, environmental groups including the NRDC, and government officials have continued to grow louder. In fact, attending Illinois Senator Durbin’s press conference announcing his Permanent Prevention of Asian Carp Act in the Senate, cosponsored by Senator Stabenow of Michigan, remains a highlight of my internship. Senator Durbin’s choice in press conference locations, the Shedd Aquarium, provided a backdrop of glistening Lake Michigan water on a beautiful sunny summer day. This spectacularly underscored the importance of protecting the watershed from the destruction Asian carp could bring. Not only will the huge vertical leap of these massive 40 to 100 pound carp (yes, they definitely eat their Wheaties every morning) disturb the surface water, but the entire Great Lakes ecosystem will be forever altered, from degraded water quality to limited opportunities for fishing, swimming and boating.
The lack of an appropriate government response has caused my personal frustrations to grow, but I still perceive optimism within the Great Lakes community. Yet, while some dubious of a separation remain receptive, others continue to spout a coordinated resistance to any permanent solution blocking Asian carp migration. Rather than adopting the “can’t-win” approach of our Senators on the recent climate and energy bill, it seems to me the region’s environmental, economic, public health, and cultural interests could join forces to form a cohesive solution to the Asian carp crisis. This will only be possible if coupled with improvements to other deficiencies in the region’s aging infrastructure, including more progressive wastewater treatment systems, green infrastructure and an efficient intermodal transportation facility.
Working on this aquatic invasive species issue has been an incredible supplement to my academic education. In just a few months, I’ve had the chance to appreciate the perseverance needed to achieve environmental progress first-hand. It’s unlikely that I’ll see a holistic strategy emerge before my internship ends. Still, hopefully in the near future the collective public, industry and government interests can come together to develop a mutually beneficial solution- one that provides sustainable, long-term progress for the region – that goes well beyond just creating some marketable nicknames for Asian carp. With this, the region could set an unprecedented example in community cooperation for our elected representatives in Washington.