By LAINA STEBBINS
Capital News Service
LANSING — The clock is ticking.
What happens when state and federal agencies lack the technology to prevent a potential ecological disaster? What happens when the well-being of Michigan’s ecosystems and economy is on the line?
If it’s up to the governor, Legislature and Department of Natural Resources (DNR), you hand the problem over to the international community. You make it a contest.
The state has set aside $1 million for a “carp challenge,” a contest to crowdsource an innovative solution to save the Great Lakes from a looming invasive carp problem. Half of that $1 million will be designated as prize money.
Since the contest was announced in Gov. Rick Snyder’s State of the State address in January, some 3,000 people from around the world have expressed interest in participating, said DNR Director Keith Creagh.
Bighead carp and silver carp, two species that pose an immediate threat to Michigan’s waters, continue to close the distance between Chicago’s waterway system and Lake Michigan. The fish have been swimming past lock and dam barriers that were designed specifically to keep them contained.
“Where the carp are established, they really do take over the biomass and outcompete the native species,” said DNR public information officer Ed Golder. “They can have a dangerously detrimental effect.”
According to Golder, the silver and bighead carp can reach up to 100 pounds and lay up to one million eggs per year. When they’re still small, they are able to group up or attach themselves to barges in order to pass through lock and dam barriers.
“They eat at a point in the food chain that could really disrupt and challenge native species, so there’s a potential to do significant ecological and economic damage to the Great Lakes because of these fish,” Golder said.
Now, “they are way too close” at just 47 miles from Lake Michigan, Golder said – a proximity which necessitates “immediate action.”
But Michigan senses a lack of urgency from its neighbors and the federal government.
“It’s very difficult to get action,” Creagh said, adding that White House budget calls for major cuts to environmental programs like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative could add yet another roadblock.
So state officials decided to open up the problem globally, Snyder said in an interview with Capital News Service.
The idea of soliciting ideas from around the world to find solutions to a problem demonstrates “true innovation in government,” Snyder said.
In addition, Snyder said, the contest has increased public awareness about the “critical priority” of combating all kinds of invasive species, both land- and water-based.
“The idea there is to not just solicit ideas, in addition to the electric barrier that currently exists,” Snyder said, but “to bring attention to the issue. … All of us need to be part of the solution.”
The attention-seeking seems to have worked.
“We’ve gotten entries from around the world,” said Golder, adding that the contest officially begins in July and a winner will be announced no later than April 2018.
According to Golder, the DNR has contracted with the Massachusetts-based company InnoCentive to “design, market and administer” the challenge. InnoCentive creates programs for organizations to crowdfund solutions from their audiences.
A website specifically for the carp contest is still in the works, but Golder said those interested can sign up to get more information at michigan.gov/carpchallenge. The department has been handing over that contact information to InnoCentive, which will send information to those individuals about how they can submit their idea.
Focus on stopping the invasive carp has mostly centered on the Brandon Road Lock and Dam near Joliet, Illinois, which serves as a control point for part of the Chicago waterway system.
“There are issues with the integrity of the concrete walls, and some of the mechanical equipment is in need of work,” Golder said.
The DNR has been pushing for the Army Corps of Engineers to take action at the lock and dam to prevent further movement of the fish, but Creagh said they “have not gotten appropriate nor acceptable action yet” from the federal agency.
Financially speaking, Michigan’s $7 billion boating and fishing industry and $22 billion tourism industry are on the line, but Creagh said there are longer term implications for the environment.
“Invasive carp in the Great Lakes should not be acceptable to anybody, from a natural resources perspective,” he said, noting that Lake Michigan holds about 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.
“We ought to be able to say we did everything we can to keep invasive carp out of the Great Lakes, and I don’t think we can say that yet,” Creagh said.
By LAINA STEBBINS