Small Fish May Stand In Way Of Big Economic Development

The Fox River Locks system dates back to the 1850s and is thought to be one of Wisconsin’s first infrastructure projects.

The locks were created as a 19th century form of the modern interstate system, helping move goods from Wisconsin to the Great Lakes and beyond. The locks also gave residents and tourists access to the riverfront. But all of that economic boon may be in jeopardy because of a 6 and a half inch fish called the round goby.

There are 17 locks on Wisconsin’s Fox River between the Oshkosh area and Green Bay.

In 2015, the lock in Menasha was closed to keep the invasive round goby at bay and out of Lake Winnebago and the Wolf River watersheds. Another barrier at Rapide Croche will most likely be closed to help stop the spread of the fish. Tentative plans to keep the Rapide Croche open include building a boat transfer and washing station to ensure no gobies make it between locks.

While these measures help minimize the spread of the invasive species — that competes with native fresh water species for food — they may have a negative impact on economic development along the Fox River.

David Fuller, a University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh economics professor, crunched the numbers and found restorations of various locks between 2005 and 2015 created more than $64 million in economic development, while the restorations only cost $14.5 million.

In that time, he said, hotels, apartments and small shops sprung up along the Fox River.

“I’m not arguing the locks are the sole reason that happened,” Fuller said.

Instead, he thinks opening the locks may have played some role in bringing more people to the riverfront.

“The usability of the river and surrounding area, it is going to generate economic activity,” said Fuller. “That’s driving most of the results I’m getting.”