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The crusade against Asian carp — where does it go now?

by Yue Wang
Feb 28, 2012


Courtesy of Big River Fish

Two enormous Bighead carp, a variety of Asian carp, were brought in to Big River Fish. Each of them weighs around 70 pounds.


Courtesy of Philip Willink

carp chart final


The number of invasive species in the Illinois River is being closely watched. The most common invasive species is common carp, which was brought into the United States in the 1860s when people had less understanding of the potential ecological consequences. 


One Asian carp has been captured beyond the electronic barriers

In late September and early October 2009, eDNA tests turned up positive for carp DNA beyond the barriers. In the summer of 2010, a 19-pound Asian carp was netted in Lake Calumet, marking the first physical discovery of the species north of the electronic barriers.

Experts are at a loss how to explain the findings.

“We did tests on the fish. The test showed that the fish spent most of its life in Lake Michigan,” said Kelly Baerwaldt, fishery biologist with the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, developer of the barriers. “It didn't come across the barrier. We concluded that somebody released it into the lake.”

Chapman says it is entirely possible that some level of Asian carp is already in the Great Lakes, but there is no evidence that they are reproducing.

“It is not just about having one male and one female out there. You need to have a lot before you are successful in creating a population,” he said. “There is no evidence that the fish went through the barriers. There are lots of ways that fish could have gone through. The barriers don’t keep people with baskets from moving around.”

How much does the permanent carp solution cost?

A permanent solution was put forward on Jan 31. In a study jointly conducted by the Great Lakes Commission and the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, activists proposed separating the Chicago River system from the Great Lakes forever to stop the carp from swimming through. The price tag is up to a staggering $9.5 billion.

“In reality, the price could be two to three times higher. If people want it enough, they can pay for it,” Willink said. “But there is no guarantee that it will work perfectly either.”

“No method is 100 percent perfect.”

2003 is the fateful year Lisa McKee swore to never set foot near the Illinois River again.

McKee and her then 10-year-old daughter, Veronica, were enjoying a boat ride when thousands of fish — disturbed by the boat motor -- suddenly jumped out of the water and charged blindly through the air.

“She[my daughter] started to yell: ‘Get me out! Get me out!” said McKee, CEO of Big River Fish, a fishery along the Mississippi River. “It is like standing on a baseball field and having 50 guys throwing baseballs at you.”

The fish that traumatized the McKees for life were silver carp, one of the varieties of Asian carp. Brought into the United States in the 1970s to control algae in ponds, Asian carp escaped into the wild in the 1990s and quickly spread through the Midwest’s water system. The fish have wreaked havoc on the ecological system of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. They vacuum up native river animals’ food supply and leap out of water when startled by motor noise and slam into boaters with bone-shattering force.

The rivers’ tragedy is threatening to repeat itself on the Great Lakes. If Asian carp swim into the lakes, they could decimate food supplies and starve out native species there, upending a multi-billion dollar fishery. Politicians and scientists have put up layers and layers of defenses against the voracious invaders, praying that these are enough to make a dent in the carp population and keep them at bay.

Can they?

Strategy one: Commercial Fishery

The philosophy is simple: The more we catch, the less the chance they will swim into the Great Lakes in quantity.

According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, 10 commercial fisheries are contracted to harvest Asian carp and they caught more than 350 tons of the fish last year in the upper Illinois River, where at least 60 percent of all species is the super-sized Asian carp.

“It seems to be working to some degree. Larger fish seem to be less common,” said Duane Chapman, leading Asian carp expert with the U.S Geological Survey. “It does seem likely, over time, the number of fish will be substantially impacted by commercial fishing.”

Chapman, however, warned there is a downside to commercial fishery that people need to be aware of.

“If there is a number of people having their livelihood involved in Asian carp, it would be more politically difficult [to control] Asian carp,” he said. “People would have incentive to stock the fish and move the fish around if they can make money out of them.

“Even if 95 percent of people hate the carp with a passion, it just takes one percent of people, or even one person, to move them around. We don't want people to do so and it is illegal to do so. But it is awfully hard to catch someone doing that,” he said.

Right now, Big River Fish and Schafer Fishery are the biggest companies handling Asian carp. Each of them sells several millions of pounds of carp meat annually.

“No matter what the fishermen catch, there are Asian carp among the fish,” said Steve McNitt, sales manager at Schafer Fishery. “We have to buy what they catch to keep them going.”

Some of that carp meat, promoted by the Illinois carp-for-food campaign, has ended up in the hands of adventurous celebrity chefs. Illinois officials hope serving Asian carp on a plate is the creative solution to the problem. However, most people crinkle their noses at the thought of eating the invasive species, whether the fish are made into fancy carp au poivre or carp amandine.

“Americans have a problem with it because it is so bony,” said Kevin Irons, aquatic invasive species program coordinator with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “The market has to develop.”

However, Great Lakes activists say instead of spending time persuading people to eat the carp, more efforts should be directed to prevention.

“All the talk of commercial fishing makes me nervous,” said Jennifer Nalbone, director of navigation and invasive species at Great Lakes United. “If there is a community invested in commercial marketing of the carp, they would want a maintained population of the fish. We don't want a carp population at all.”

“Any tool they can use to reduce the carp population is important,” she said. “But we don't want any effort that diverts our attention from the prevention of Asian carp into the Great Lakes.”

Strategy Two: Electronic barriers

The system of electronic barriers installed along the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal — part of a man-made waterway linking the carp-infested rivers to the Great Lakes — is the bulwark to stop the voracious fish’s journey into the Great Lakes.

They cost $30 million to install and about $720,000 to operate each year, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. Experts say any Asian carp that challenges the barriers will be paralyzed by electric currents and jerked back to the river.

“The electric barriers on the canal are absolutely essential,” said Marc Gaden, legislative liasion for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. “Without that, there would be nothing standing between the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes.”

Necessary? Yes. Problem-free? No.

An Asian carp was found beyond the barriers in 2010. No matter how that one fish got past, its presence was enough to stir a great deal of panic.

In the ensuing brouhaha, Michigan and some other Great Lakes states brought repeated legal actions against the U.S Army Corps of Engineers and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, demanding closure of the O'Brien and Chicago locks until a permanent solution is found. Though the U.S. Supreme Court said Monday it will stay out of the carp fight, Michigan officials will not relent.

“The status quo is not working,” said Joy Yearout, a spokeswoman at the Michigan Attorney General’s office. “We will continue to press forward.”

Philip Willink, an Asian carp expert with the Field Museum, says the barriers are one of the best short-term solutions.

“The electronic barriers are working well,” Willink said. “It probably is 99 percent perfect, I don't know, something like that. If a couple of fish approach, there is a good chance that they will be stopped. But if it is continuously peppered, eventually it is going to fail.”

Kelly Baerwaldt, fishery biologist with the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, said they still have high confidence in the electronic barriers to effectively deter fish from 2.1 inches to 30 inches.

Bigger Asian carp are found 25 miles away from the barrier, according to the Corps,. while maller ones are 150 miles away.

Now more and more aggressive strategies are being considered in the crusade against the carp.

The Obama Administration announced Thursday that $51.5 million will be allocated to monitor and control the invasive species. Recommended new tactics will include female fish urine intended to lure male carp, fish toxin that targets the carp specifically, and a large underwater pressure gun to deter fish headed toward the Great Lakes.

“We are at an early stage [developing the toxin], but the result is promising,” said Mark Gaikowski, research physiologist at the Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center. “In another three to five years, we probably will have something on the market.”

Experts say these are not the end solutions.

Strategy three: Physical Separation

Experts say the ideal solution from the biological standpoint is to separate the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal from Lake Michigan forever with physical barriers. However, there is no guarantee that the separation will be 100 percent effective.

Once the carp manage to break all the costly defenses and swim into the Great Lakes in quantity, they will be a nightmare.

But, according to Baerwaldt, there is a chance that the fish might not be able to establish such a huge population because they are “picky” when it comes to spawning places.

“Studies suggest that Asian carp require a 100 kilometer length of river to spawn,” she said. “They need moving water to keep the eggs floating.”

“If they get into the lake, they probably can sustain some level of population. I don't know if the size would be the same as the population of the Illinois River.”

But that doesn’t mean people can be less vigilant. The Great Lakes already suffer heavily from all sorts of invasive species. It takes about $20 million a year to control the population of the sea lamprey, a vampirish fish species that drains the blood of native lake trout. Experts say battling Asian carp will cost no less.

“Once they are in the Great Lakes, it will be exceedingly difficult to control them,” said David Ullrich, executive director of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. “We can keep the population at a lower level, but it is almost impossible to get rid of them.”

The best bet against the carp is still prevention, Baerwaldt said.

“Being vigilant is our top one priority. Prevention is a lot easier”, she said. “We need a long-term solution.”