State lawmakers consider long-term invasive species fight
ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators are considering launching a long-term fight against invasive species such as Asian carp while at the same time trying to stop fish and other species already in the state.
Also, state lawmakers may ask their federal counterparts to begin funding programs to stop an invasion that many say could threaten Minnesota's tourism and fishing industries.
"We want to get beyond the reactive stage and get to the proactive stage," said Peter Sorenson, a University of Minnesota fish scientist whose proposal to build an aquatic invasive species research center is key to the legislative proposal.
Experts say that various types of stop-gap Asian carp barriers being considered will not fully stop the advance.
"At best, we can slow these things down," said Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, sponsor of the research center proposal that gained its first committee approval Thursday.
"Without this quality research going into place ... all of our best efforts at deterring just aren't going to matter," he added.
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, who heads the Senate natural resources committee, said the plan would spend nearly $4 million to open the center, which Sorensen said would not be operating for up to three years.
Ingebrigtsen's committee approved another Carlson bill, a request that Congress immediately spend money expand the fight against Asian carp, zebra mussels and other invaders.
Conservation groups said bills five members of the Minnesota congressional delegation introduced this week are promising.
The bills would encourage closing the Upper St. Anthony Falls Dams in Minneapolis, and require its immediate closing if Asian carp are found in the area. The closure would be an attempt to stop the fish from moving further upstream.
"The spread of Asian carp in our state's rivers would have a disastrous ecological impact and harm Minnesota's recreation and fishing industries that are so important to our state's economy," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said. "It is vital that we take action to stop the spread of this invasive species, and this legislation will help the state protect Minnesota's waterways."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers indicates that it needs to study the situation and could not close the dam or locks this year. Carlson's resolution requests action in 2012.
Executive Director Gary Botzek of the Minnesota Conservation Federation said the fight cannot wait.
"Asian carp provide a clear and present danger to Minnesota's vast natural resources," Botzek said.
Asian carp DNA has been found in the Twin Cities area and a week ago three of the carp were caught in the Mississippi River in southeastern Minnesota.
Natural resources officials fear that once carp establish colonies in Minnesota rivers, they will spread throughout the state.
Asian carp come in three varieties, one of which has gained a reputation of flying out water and hitting boaters. Some can grow to more than four feet long and weigh up to 100 pounds.
Such large fish can dominate the food supply, denying native species food.
Botzek urged state lawmakers to ask Congress to begin the fight south of Minnesota, so carp can be stopped far way.
"The more battles we can fight to the south, the better off we will be," Botzek said.
Ingebrigtsen said that the University of Minnesota's research center is important because the fight will last a long time.
"We can't just set this up and walk away from it," the senator said.
Ingebrigtsen warned that boaters and others may not like part of the answer to the fight: doubling boat registration fees and increasing enforcement of laws designed to prevent transfer of invasive species from one body of water to another.
While much of the attention is focused on Asian carp, Ingebrigtsen and Sorenson said that zebra mussels and other plant and animal species already in Minnesota need attention, too. About 100 invasive species are reported in the Great Lakes and nearly that many in the Mississippi River system.
"We are optimistic we can make some real progress in these issues and still protect quite a bit of Minnesota's habitat," Sorenson said.
"Every species has its weakness," he added.
Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.