December 11, 2009

Asian Carp Set To Invade The Great Lakes

Giant, ravenous Asian carp are soon to roam the Great Lakes, and the region's $7 billion fishing industry has reason to be concerned.

Pat Chrysler, who has nearly 40 years of experience as a fishing guide on the Great Lakes, has seen the impact that other invasive species have had and is now worried about the effect the huge, ferocious Asian carp could have on the nation's largest bodies of freshwater.

"It's like introducing piranhas to the Great Lakes," Chrysler told the Associated Press.

Both federal and state officials are getting ready to commence a last-ditch effort to keep the ravenous carp from crossing an electrical barrier and slipping into the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River.

Now, Michigan is drawing up a lawsuit calling for the closing of shipping locks on a waterway that connects the lakes with the Mississippi. And last week, Illinois officials poisoned a six-mile stretch of a canal to kill any carp that could be there.

The mere thought of having carp spill into the Great Lakes is terrifying for environmentalists and those whose livelihoods depend on a strong fishing and tourism economy, from charter boat skippers to those who sell bait and tackle, rent personal watercraft and operate lakefront restaurants and motels.

The Great Lakes fishing industry alone is valued at $7 billion a year, reported the Associated Press.

"I'm afraid they can wipe us out in a hurry," said Jim Conder, a charter boat operator on Michigan's St. Joseph River, which flows into Lake Michigan. "We need to spend all we can to keep them out."

Parasitic sea lampreys, zebra mussels and other invasive species have killed trout and birds, left prized salmon and whitefish skinnier, and done other damage to the lakes over the years.

Many people are now afraid that the Asian carp, which can reach 4 feet long and weigh up to 100 pounds, will do great damage as well, not only by attacking the native fish, but starving them by devouring the plankton.

The carp were initially brought over from Asia to clean fish ponds and sewage lagoons in the Deep South. However, they worked their way into the Mississippi and have been traveling north since the 1970s.

While no one knows what will happen if the carp invade the Great Lakes or how long it would take to make a significant impact, past experiences give experts a clue. In the Illinois River, the carp showed its power to dominate the waters when it caused fish such as gizzard shad and bigmouth buffalo to starve.

They have also been known to be startled by the sound of motors and jump from the water with their massive bodies colliding with boaters with destructive force.

Steve Munton of Fulton County, Ill., told AP that Asian carp ripped his nets, and one jumped out and knocked his pet Labrador out cold. "They're nuts," he said.

Tavern manager Betty DeFord of Bath, Ill., remembers struggling with flying carp while traveling on a 16-foot craft about five years ago. "They just about swamped us. They were like flying torpedoes," she told AP. "We were hitting them with a broom, boat oars, anything."

Many anglers have no desire to fish for Asian carp. The way that salmon fight make them good sport, but the carp have small mouths and are not likely to bite at baited hooks.

Americans are more likely to eat salmon than carp, but Mike Schafer, owner of a processing plant in Thomson, Ill., sells about 100,000 pounds a week for human consumption overseas or conversion into fertilizer. "We're the only country in the world that looks at a carp as a trash fish," he said.

For the time being, the carp are being held back by an electric barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, part of the waterway linking the Mississippi with the Great Lakes. It sends out electric pulses to ward off carp and administers a safe, but effective shock if they continue to approach the barrier.

There are some who remain critical of the electric barrier solution, including environmentalists and Michigan officials, who questioned the method after Asian carp DNA was found past the barrier this fall.

Some want to do away with the 100-year-old manmade route between the Mississippi and the lakes, but tug and barge companies that haul millions of tons of iron ore, coal, grain, scrap metal and other cargo on the waterway completely oppose the proposal.

If a small number of the Asian carp make it to the lakes, it does not mean instant destruction. They would have to multiply in large numbers, and U.S. Geological Survey biologist Duane Chapman said it could take years, or even decades for carp to devastate valuable species such as salmon and whitefish.

"Will they grow and reproduce enough to be a huge player in the ecology? Can't say for sure," he said. "If they are successful, I can't think of a positive outcome."