Grit Blogs > A Lakeside View

Asian Carp: Great Lakes Ecosystem Hanging in Balance

By Cindy Murphy


Tags: Asian carp, Great Lakes,

CindyMurphyBlog.jpgBelow the water’s surface lurks danger. A voraciously monstrous creature devours nearly half its body-weight each day in an attempt to cure its insatiable appetite. An unsuspecting boater enters the territory, and the beast breaches the water, violently hurling itself through the air toward the boat’s startled and horrified occupant.

Creature from the Black Lagoon imageSound like another creature has risen from the Black Lagoon? If only it was so, but this creature is not fictional. Last February, I wrote about the Emerald Ash Borer’s destruction of millions of our country’s native ash trees, and now there’s another invasive species making headlines as it threatens to invade the Great Lakes Region.

It’s the Asian Carp, and it has the ability to quickly dominate every waterbody it enters … and it’s about to enter the largest body of freshwater in the world. I first heard about Asian Carp a couple of months ago when I read about a massive fish kill planned by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The kill was to take place when the electrical barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was shut down for routine maintenance. Both the barrier and the kill are efforts to keep the fish out of Lake Michigan.

An electrical fish barrier – the world’s largest, designed to keep fish from the world’s largest freshwater supply? Planned massive fish kills? Asian carp? Call it a case of being unaware until it hits close to home, but I had no idea these things existed.

The Asian carp though, have been in this country since the sixties when they were brought to Arkansas by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a biological control for aquatic weeds, and for use as pond cleaners in fish farms. Though they may have escaped earlier, it’s thought the Mississippi flooding in 1990 escalated the problem. Because the fish are prolific breeders, they are now the dominant species in many parts of the Mississippi, Tennessee, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, Columbia and Platte Rivers, and their tributaries, making up to 97 percent percent of the fish population in areas of heavy infestation. There are two electrical barriers which operate much in the same way as do electrical livestock fences. They are considered the last line of defense between the Mississippi River Basin and the Great Lakes Basin, but must be shut down periodically for maintenance.

Native to China, Russia, and Vietnam, four species are lumped under the generic term “Asian carp.” All four species – the black, grass, bighead and silver carp – have no known predators, and can quickly deplete the food supply of other fish species. Feeding on plankton, they consume up to 40 percent of their body weight, effectively starving out other fish. The effects eventually make its way up the food chain so that scientists fear even the bigger game fish – sturgeon, salmon and trout – may become endangered.

The biggest threat comes from the bighead and silver species. The bighead – a fish without a stomach – constantly eats, growing to lengths of 4 feet, and weighing in at 85 to 100 pounds. It is an eating, reproducing machine. The smaller silver carp, weighing a mere 50 pounds, is a danger to boaters, jet-skiers and other recreational water vehicles, as it has a tendency to leap from the water when disturbed, causing broken bones and other serious injuries to humans unfortunate enough to get hit by the airborne fish. Full of “free-floating” bones, the fish are considered useless commercially for human consumption.

Silver carp courtesy Illinois River Biological Station

I respect Lake Michigan; I feel lucky to live on her shoreline and would not dream of living anywhere else. I hate to think how the carp will destroy the lake I love. But the carp problem goes far deeper than do the beautiful waters of the lake. If the fish make it into the Lake Michigan, the estimated dollar amount impact is between 4.5 and 7 billion to commercial fishing and recreation industries … which does not figure the impact they’ll have on the ecosystem. And it doesn’t stop there. Once they’ve gained entry into the Great Lakes, speculation says they’ll eventually infest Canada’s river system, and possibly enter our eastern states via the St. Lawrence and Hudson rivers.

Michigan filed lawsuit with the Supreme Court, with the backing of Indiana, Ohio, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, in an attempt to force the closing of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The man-made canal, called one of the greatest engineering feats of the 20th century, is the only link between the Mississippi River Basin and the Great Lakes.

It’s thought that closing the canal would halt the Asian carp and any other invasive species from entering the Great Lakes, and is critical for preservation and restoration of the lakes. Quoted in USA Today, Marc Gaden of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, jointly operated by the United States and Canada, says “We have to take care of this problem permanently. We need pure biological separation between the Mississippi River basin and the Great Lakes basin …We don’t have time to wait … this is an emergency.”

My gut-reaction is to close the canal, and do it immediately. But the solution is not so simple. I live on the Michigan side of the lake; Chicagoans view it from a different perspective. Forcing the canal’s closing would mean a loss of billions of dollars in revenue from Chicago’s fishing, shipping, and tourist industries.

In late January, the Supreme Court rejected Michigan’s suit, citing shipping loss and the fear of Chicago flooding as reasons. The same day Chicago shippers and fishermen rejoiced the court’s decision, carp DNA was found in Lake Michigan – though the presence of DNA does not mean the carp have actually entered the lake yet. The first day of a mid-February two week fishing expedition on the canal yielded no actual carp, the cold winter waters possibly keeping them inactive and on the bottom of the canal.

The debate still rages at public hearings in both Michigan and Chicago. A February 17th article in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Journal Sentinel, quotes Robert Agra, a Chicago cruise line operator as saying, “Closing the locks in the Chicago area will not stop the carp, but it will destroy the Chicago tour boat industry.”

The rebuttal from the environmental group, Clean Water Action, is that closing the lock is the best option right now. “Protecting the narrow shipping interests cannot outweigh protecting the Great Lakes from an economic and ecologic disaster,” says Susan Harley, spokeswoman for the group.

It deeply saddens me to know the beauty and ecology of one of our greatest natural resources hangs in the balance while humans try to decide how to correct yet another problem we, ourselves, have created. What’s your opinion?

For a dramatic look at Asian carp on the Mississippi and its tributaries, check out this two-part mini-documentary on YouTube. Filmed in 2006, the videos, totaling about 15 minutes combined, give a good perspective of the destruction this invasive species has caused.

Asian Carp Invasion Part I 

Asian Carp Invasion Part II

(Photo of silver carp courtesy of the Illinois River Biological Station)

 

 

 

cindy murphy
3/3/2010 5:57:17 PM

Hi, Dave! Back from your trip already? (Or do the days seem to go by faster since I'm getting older? Shhh...it's probably the latter.) Looking forward to reading about it in your blog. I'm not sure of the particulars, but I read somewhere that there are two respresentives in Illinois trying to get federal grant money to start a Asian carp fishing industry to use the fish for fertilizers and biofuel. Private fisherman have developed bow-fishing the carp into quite a sport...football helmets are recommended as protection from the ones that fly outta the water like speeding bullets. Thanks for the comments, Michelle. It always makes me happy you still stop by.


nebraska dave
3/3/2010 10:31:17 AM

Cindy, I had heard about the Asian Carp dilemma but had no idea it was as bad as it is. I didn’t know that they got so big either. My goodness fifty pounds is a big fish. I’d say that maybe a good business opportunity could come from this. A company could harvest the fish and process them into fish meal which should make for a good fertilizer. Don’t you think? It sounds like there would be an endless supply. The picture of the jumping fish is positively fascinating. I’ve seen little fish do that but not fish of this size. It saddens my heart to think that man continues to believe that he knows better than nature. To introduce a species into an area where the balance of nature doesn’t exit is absolutely ludicrous. I certainly hope our arrogance doesn’t ruin our county’s waters. My fondest memories have been related to fishing. I would hate to think that could be in jeopardy. Thank you so much for you kind words on my first blog entry. I was quite surprised to see the many responses when I returned from the Great Central American Road Trip. I really have to get started on the personal blogs about the trip. After 10 days of foreign country food my stomach is still readjusting to American food. :) I guess maybe that’s telling me something.


michelle house
2/28/2010 10:30:30 AM

Hi Cindy, well there is no easy answer is there. Kind of between a rock and a hard place, on this one. Very good article as always. Michelle :)


cindy murphy
2/27/2010 7:42:18 PM

Pam, thanks for the link! I watched, and the footage is from the mini-doctumentary which is posted on YouTube, with what (seems like) more recent commentary. Oz Girl, it seems like a tough decision to close the canal; I sympathize with all those who may lose their livelihood because of it, especially in today's economy. But yet...which is worse - the loss of jobs and billions of dollars now, or an even greater loss in both terms of money, and to the earth's ecology later? It'll be irreversable and unrecoupable, especially if the fish spread through more of the continent's waterways. Nice decision, you endeavoring to plant natives on your homestead. There are many advantages to 'going native', and I'm sure you won't be disappointed.


oz girl
2/27/2010 1:39:47 PM

I agree with Mountain Woman - it's a shame that the almight dollar always seems to win out. Concern for this beautiful earth of ours, protecting it and preserving it, seems to be at the bottom of the list for many people - making money, more and more of it, with a total disdain for anything that is destroyed in the process, always seems to be a priority. Which makes me sad. I firmly believe the canal needs to be closed - if that is the only way to prevent the spread of the Asian Carp into the Great Lakes, then so be it. I guess those people who base their living from this canal will need to be resourceful and find another way to make their living. Is that any different than the multitudes of folks who have been laid off and fired from their industrial jobs in the last year or so? Loss of a job often inspires people to reflect on their life anyway, and come up with something better than what they were doing. I digress (as usual). :) Speaking of planting native plants, I have done my research on Kansas Univ's website, and I am endeavoring to plant native species here on our homestead this year.


pam_6
2/26/2010 9:46:46 PM

Cindy, It was on Discover's Animal Planet channel. http://animal.discovery.com/videos/weird-true-freaky-asian-carp-invasion.html Then name of the show is-Weird True & Freaky: Asian Carp Invasion Pam Life on a Southern Farm


cindy murphy
2/26/2010 6:45:47 PM

Thanks for your comment, Pam. Do you remember what television show you watched? I'd like to see if I can catch it On Demand. I've been scouring the Internet to keep updated on the situation, but haven't seen anything on T.V. about the problem. Thanks!


cindy murphy
2/26/2010 6:35:36 PM

Mountain Woman, when I wrote about the emerald ash borer here, I was disheartened at all the massive destruction such a tiny insect caused. I never dreamed a year later almost to the day, I'd be writing about another destructive invasive species. I hope next year, there is not another species taking the spotlight. Unfortunately, it seems there will always be something new waiting to rear its ugly head. Sherry, it is both sad and frustrating that right now, while it still seems there is a chance, that the concern for the dollar is mightier than concern for the eco-system!


pam_6
2/26/2010 6:34:59 PM

Hi Cindy, Your post has some great information on the Asian Carp. I recently saw a t.v. show about the problems with the Asian Carp and was amazed at how they have populated so and the damage they are causing. I agree that decisions and actions need to be made quickly to stop the damage and future damage from happening to our streams and native fish. Great post. Gafarmwoman Pam


sherry 'woodswoman'
2/26/2010 4:27:51 PM

Great post Cindy. Very informative. I, too, have been riveted to all discussions of Asian Carp. The video's are shocking and disburbing. Growing up on Lake Michigan (Petoskey), I, too, have great respect for keeping this lake safe and free from harm. I am saddened that prevention is not considered an option at this time, even with the new DNA evidence. If folks watch the videos, they will see ~ once the Carp are in place, it will be impossible to effectively remove them. Let's hope the almighty dollar doesn't rule over common sense.


mountain woman
2/26/2010 4:10:01 PM

Hi Cindy, Great suggestion! In Vermont, it is illegal to transport firewood into the state. People used to do it in the summer for their campfires and in the fall for hunting season and without realizing they were doing harm. Cindy, Maybe you could write a post one day about more of this again? Love the topic!


cindy murphy
2/26/2010 3:26:21 PM

Thank you for your comments, Mountain Woman, and for your concern. Invasive species are like a genie let out of the bottle - once released, they are nearly impossible to control. You've made some excellent suggestions on how we can do our part as individuals to prevent - or at least slow - the spread of many of these species. I'd also like to add another - please do not move firewood to different counties or transport it across state lines. Not only is it illegal in many instances, it is also the main cause of spreading the Emerald Ash Borer, and some other destructive insects and diseases hiding in the wood. You said it best when you wrote that we are all have the responsibility of being stewards of our land and its natural resources to ensure it is still here for future generations.


mountain woman
2/26/2010 1:20:20 PM

Cindy, Your article is so timely and so thought provoking and I hope one which everybody will read and then if they haven't thought about the problem of invasive species and their responsibility to the environment, then they will do more research and think about it. Through our often well meaning carelessness, invasive species are becoming a problem everywhere and not just in Lake Michigan. Our forests in Vermont are threatened by them and while invasive species are harming our forests, our bats and honeybees here in the Northeast are also disappearing from new diseases. Our eco-system is fragile and takes attention from all of us. Before you plant that hedgerow or that flower or tree, check and make sure it is a native plant. Before you build a pond and stock it, be careful of what you are stocking. Do you have farm animals? Are they on a creek or a stream? Where does the waste of your animals go? Into the waterways? We are all responsible one to the other and to the generations who will come after us to be stewards of our land. You touched so eloquently on a subject matter that is dear to my heart. Great article and the picture you printed hopefully will help people recognize the magnitude of the problem. Thank you Cindy!!!