The nightmare of Asian carp infiltrating our waterways might be closer than we think. According to a consortium of environmental groups*, the invasive species are bridging the gap that would allow the fish access to the Great Lakes, starting with Lake Michigan. Apparently the species of fish breeds at a rapid speed in the most unlikely of places, including shallow tributaries, making them resilient to traditional preventative efforts.
“Evidence of Asian carp breeding much closer to Lake Michigan is an urgent reminder that the clock is ticking on our opportunity to put a permanent solution in place,” said Jack Darin, director of Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter. “Breeding Asian carp near the barrier raises the threat level to Great Lakes. The carp are on the move, and we all need to redouble our work toward a permanent solution before it’s too late.”
At this point, the carp have been found as close as 62 miles from Lake Michigan, and they are now within 25 miles of an electric fence that has been installed as a last resort. If the fish make it past the fence, then we’re all in trouble, as these carp heavily compete with indigenous fish populations. “The fish are beating a quick path to the Great Lakes and we need federal efforts to keep pace with the threat,” says Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “Congress needs to take action now to support a permanent solution to the problem.”
The Asian carp have a voracious appetite, which means that they would devour much of the life sustaining nutrients (algae and small microscopic organisms) that other fish rely on. Once they have entered the Great Lakes, there appears to be not much that we can do about the problem. “The fact that Asian carp are reproducing, and these reproducing populations are moving closer, makes it even more important that action is taken quickly, “ notes Cheryl Kallio, associate director for Freshwater Future. “Thousands of citizens in the region have been contacting their members of Congress, calling for fast action on a permanent solution to stop Asian carp. They’ve had an impact with the Stop Invasive Species Act. We’re one step closer, but it is critical for people to continue reaching out to their elected officials.”
While on a recent trip to the 1000 Islands, I was struck by the lack of small fish that can normally be seen swimming around the docks. I was informed that the reason that there were no small bass or perch, or even sunfish, was that the invasive goby population had moved in and had claimed all of the shallow, sandy breeding grounds that the indigenous fish once relied on. Invasive species such as the goby can wreak havoc upon balanced ecosystems in a relatively short period of time. That includes the Asian carp. “At every phase of the game, the Asian carp have been underestimated in their advance up the Mississippi and through Illinois on their way to the Great Lakes,” says Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Meleah Geertsma. “We have to get out in front of this invasion once and for all, which means putting in a physical separation to avoid unnecessary environmental and economic damage that comes with these detrimental devils.”
Studies have shown that Asian carp fry (babies) are somewhat resilient to the electric fence that is in place, which means that a physical barrier looks to be the only way to stop what looks to be an imminent invasion. “This is another urgent indication that the entire Great Lakes region needs to support a physical barrier in Chicago in order to protect our economy, our fishery and our way of life,” says Marc Smith, senior policy manager with National Wildlife Federation.
“Fish don’t care about congressional authorization or timetables,” says Robert Hirschfeld, water policy specialist at Prairie Rivers Network. “The half-measures currently in place have not stopped the advance of Asian carp. Congress needs to act now to separate the basins or it will bear responsibility for a devastating blow to the Great Lakes economy.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be reporting on its findings regarding ways stop invasive species from entering into the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River basins in the future. Unfortunately, the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study (GLMRIS), due in December, can’t revert the extensive damage that has already been done, or is about to be done. The rate at which the Asian carp are traveling (and breeding), means that the 62 mile separation between them and Lake Michigan is nothing when it comes to the long distance aquatic trip that these filter-feeders have already made. As if we don’t have enough problems with the Great Lakes.
“Despite all the effort to understand the problem and stop the advance of bighead and silver carp, at present a fully implemented, permanent solution could still be years away,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director, Friends of the Chicago River. “With Asian carp on the move and our rivers at risk from dozens of other aquatic invasives already present in the Great Lakes, we need to do better than that and ask Congress to act as soon as GLMRIS is released.”
In the meantime, some manufacturers are betting that Asian carp will make great fertilizer and pet food. Others tout that the Asian carp is a prized delicacy in China, and not to discard the value of the meat even if the word “carp” is frowned upon by Americans. Plus, the carp eats low on the food chain (algae and such), which means that it’s a relatively risk-free eating fish when it comes to contaminants** – that’s good news for Buffalo’s refugee population. At some point it could be all about taking these monstrous lemons and making lemonade. After all, Cleveland hosts a festival each year called Pestival (learn more) where they actually have prizes for cooking the most delicious invasive species dishes… they say, “If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em!”
*Alliance for the Great Lakes – Freshwater Future – Friends of the Chicago River –
Healthy Waters Solutions Coalition – National Wildlife Federation – Natural Resources Defense Council – Prairie Rivers Network – Sierra Club-Illinois Chapter