Feb 22, 2011  |  Today's News

The U.S. House rejected a proposal Thursday to force the closure of Chicago-area shipping locks that could provide an opening to the Great Lakes for voracious Asian carp, a potential threat to native fish species and the region's economy.

By a vote of 292-137, lawmakers defeated a budget bill amendment offered by Republican Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan that would have denied funding to the Army Corps of Engineers to open the two navigational structures.

Opponents argued successfully that the locks were vital to commerce and closing them wouldn't necessarily prevent the unwanted carp from reaching Lake Michigan.

"It's a great relief that we were able to defeat this amendment," said Rep. Judy Biggert, an Illinois Republican. "Its passage would have been devastating to Chicago's economy and cost thousands of jobs in our region. Worse, it would have been an empty gesture against the carp, doing more to kill jobs than slow down fish."

Michigan and four other states — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania — are suing in federal court to close the locks and permanently sever the manmade link between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds to prevent invasive species from migrating between them.

Camp and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, previously sponsored bills to close the locks, located on a network of rivers and canals near Chicago where bighead and silver carp have been found. Both are Asian species that escaped from Southern fish farms in the early 1970s and have migrated northward since then.

The carp can reach 4 feet in length and weigh more than 100 pounds. They are prolific and eat huge amounts of plankton, the microscopic plants and animals at the base of the aquatic food chain. Scientists say if they become established in the Great Lakes, they could crowd out native species and endanger a fishing industry valued at more than $7 billion.

During debate on his proposed amendment, Camp said closing the locks was "the single most important step we can take to prevent these species from entering the Great Lakes."

He accused opponents of exaggerating the potential damage to the Chicago economy, which he said would "pale in comparison to the multibillion-dollar industries that would be wiped out by Asian carp."

"Every day of inaction puts the Great Lakes ecosystem, the largest body of fresh water in the world, and 800,000 jobs it sustains at risk," Camp said.

Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican, said electric barriers on the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal had done a good job of blocking the carp's advance, even though scientists have reported finding DNA from the carp beyond the devices.

"This is a serious but manageable threat to the Great Lakes region," Pence said.