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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Rat Seeks Carp

You’d think the most exotic and controversial animal trap in the entire country would be more exciting to look at. It wasn’t. As a connoisseur of traps, this Rat was most curious about an electric fish trap. And from this Rat’s perspective, this fish (trap) story is a dandy tale -- about human beings, the illusions you harbor about controlling nature, and the immutable law of unintended consequences.

The aforementioned animal trap is actually not a trap but an electric fish barrier, wired to the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. It is the last line of defense keeping the marauding Asian carp from wreaking havoc in Lake Michigan, and no doubt beyond. (But as a fellow low-life, bottom-feeding critter, Rat does harbor some sympathy for the much disparaged Asian carp.)

The site of the electric fish barrier, on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

You’ll see pictured here some interested souls getting a tour of this fish barrier, found near Lockport, Illinois and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Essentially the barrier is a bunch of thick wires in the water just above the bottom of the canal that emit electric waves that repel the fish. Even though you weren’t supposed to actually see fish fleeing , very few of the people on this tour shared the Corps’ sanguine view of the effectiveness of this device.

The weird plumbing Chicago area rivers can be seen at this site (called Bubbly Creek at one time because of the decaying refuse gassing off in the stream, located about a mile from the Loop).

So far, only one Asian carp has found upstream from the barrier that we know about, but plenty of Asian carp DNA has been detected. Experts believe if the carp gets past the barriers, they have a free shot to Lake Michigan, and eventually Wisconsin’s rivers. (Asian carp can get to Wisconsin via the Mississippi River too, of course.)

Equally fascinating on this tour was getting to see firsthand the elaborate and massive plumbing job that is the river and surface waterway system for Chicago. The whole thing has been engineered to look nothing like it looked before settlement, and its dual purpose is to move cargo and send polluted water down to the Mississippi River (150 miles away) instead of to Lake Michigan (which is right there). Trying to manipulate this system to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes, as some are proposing, will be enormous engineering, hydrologic and – especially – political undertaking.

Time is totally on the carp’s side on this one.

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