Asian carp discovery near Lake Michigan draws concern from wildlife experts, legislators

Illinois Department of Natural Resources/AP
A 20-pound Asian carp is held after being caught beyond the electric barriers constructed to keep the dreaded invasive species out of the Great Lakes. State and federal officials said Wednesday that commercial fishermen found the 3-foot-long, 20-pound carp in Lake Calumet on Chicago's South Side, about six miles downstream of Lake Michigan Buy this photo

Daily Staff Reporter
Published June 29, 2010

Though efforts have been made to keep the Bighead Asian carp at bay and out of the Great Lakes, the recent discovery of a carp beyond the electrical barrier system in place at the Chicago Area Waterway System has left many wildlife experts uneasy.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service reported the discovery of an Asian carp — an invasive species that has ravaged the Mississippi and Illinois river systems — about 6 miles downstream of Lake Michigan, according to a press release issued last week.

The IDNR has been sampling the Chicago Area Waterway System since February in search of both Bighead and Silver Asian carp. The fish caught in Lake Calumet on Jun. 22 by a commercial fisherman contracted by the IDNR measured 34.6 inches long and weighed 19.6 pounds.

John Rogner, assistant director of the IDNR, said no additional Asian carp have been found after further netting and electrofishing in the area. He said fishermen will continue to survey Lake Calumet and the Calumet River leading to Lake Michigan through this week, but even if no Asian carp are found, the threat of the invasive species’ northern migration will remain.

“One fish doesn’t necessarily mean there are more fish, but it certainly rings the alarm bell,” he said. “We will never become confident that there are none in the system. We don’t see an endpoint actually. I think (the search) will continue for a good long while.”

In the event that fishermen find more of the foreign species, Rogner said the IDNR may pursue intense fishing and adding Rotenone — a chemical toxin — in the water. He said that if implemented properly, Rotenone can effectively kill the Asian carp, while sparing other fish that are more tolerant of the toxin.

Charlie Wooley, the deputy regional director for the USFWS in Minneapolis, Minn., said it’s too soon to speculate what the IDNR and the USFWS will do if more Asian carp show up.

“If there are additional fish found … we would reconvene the technical experts, and we would design another … kind of control action in that area. What that would be, it would be too early to conjecture that right now,” he said.

Wooley did warn, however, that if there are more Asian carp above the U.S. Army Corp of Engineer’s Electrical Barrier System and they become established in the Great Lakes, there would be disastrous ecological consequences.

“They have left a trail of devastation behind them as they’ve moved through the river system. We just do not want to see that happen in Southern Lake Michigan,” he said.

The only other Asian carp found in the CAWS was caught on Dec. 3 of last year in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Unlike the first fish, the specimen caught last week was found above the electric barrier, which was designed specifically to keep invasive aquatic species from entering the Great Lakes Basins from the Mississippi River.

According to Rogner, the electric barrier has three parts but only two of them are currently fully functional. Construction on the third will be completed in the fall, at which point, he said, the barrier will be a “very effective system.”

Although this is the first fish caught above the barrier, a research team led by David Lodge, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Notre Dame, found environmental DNA of Silver Asian carp in the Calumet River and Calumet Harbor last year, which at the time indicated the presence of the invasive species.

Last week’s catch validated Lodge’s findings and has caused great alarm among state officials.

A report from the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee, a group dedicated to the control and management of Asian carp in the U.S., said fish farmers in the south imported the species in the 1970s to keep aquaculture facilities clean and provide fresh fish for markets.

The destructive path up the Mississippi River of the invasive species began in the 1980s when the fish escaped into the wild, and they have since dominated the Mississippi and Illinois river systems and continue to move northward.

Bighead and Silver Asian carp eat plankton, a primary food source for indigenous fish in the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, and easily out-compete those native species.

The ACRCC reported that commercial catch of Bighead Asian carp in the Mississippi River shot from 5.5 tons to 55 tons between 1994 and 1997, and today fishermen catch up to 25,000 pounds of Bighead and Silver Asian carp in the Illinois River on a daily basis. The report added that the commercial value of the carp is much lower than that of the fish they out-compete, posing severe consequences for the $7 billion commercial, tribal and sport fishing industries in the Great Lakes.

The ACRCC also warned that Silver Asian carp, which can grow to over 20 pounds, are a direct threat to people because they are easily startled by boat motors and when around one, leap as high as ten feet out of the water. Boaters and jet skiers in Asian carp-inhabited waters are regularly hit by flying fish, according the ACRCC.

Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of Alliance for the Great Lakes — a group that fights for the preservation of the Great Lakes through public policy, education and local efforts — said the only way to avoid an Asian carp invasion is to construct a physical barrier, known as “hydrological separation.”

“It’s disturbing to find a live fish, but the reality is the same,” he said. “We need to separate the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River. The only solution that’s going to eliminate the concern of invasions of the Great Lakes by Asian carp or other species is separating these two water systems.”

According to Brammeier, the United States Army Corps of Engineers has orders to look into construction of a permanent barrier, but it hasn’t acted swiftly enough and needs to “get on the ball and finish the work that it’s been charged to do.”

Senator Dick Durbin (D–Ill.) issued a press release last Friday announcing that he and Senator Debbie Stabenow (D–Mich.) will introduce legislation this week that will require the USACE to speed up investigation into hydrological separation.

Senator Stabenow, who has sought to keep Asian Carp out of the Great Lakes for years, took to the Senate floor last week to urge the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to close the locks connecting the Illinois River to Lake Michigan until a more permanent solution like hydrological separation is put in place.

“This isn’t just the economy, it’s not just boating, it’s not just fishing, it really is our way of life in the Great Lakes, and despite efforts that have gone on for years to stop the fish, it hasn’t happened, and now we have to take very decisive action to close the locks immediately so that we can determine how best long-term to solve this problem,” Stabenow said at the time.

“Asian carp could completely unwind the food chain with devastating effects for our existing fish populations,” Stabenow said, which, she added, would put the $16 billion recreational boating industry and $7 billion dollar fishing industry at risk.

Mark Denzler, vice president and chief operating officer of the Illinois Manufacturers Association, voiced strong opposition to the proposal to close the locks, saying cutting off the waterway would have severe consequences.

“Closing off the Great Lakes from the Chicago waterways would be economically devastating,” he said. “It would create an economic ripple, not only in Chicago, but also in the Midwest.”

The IMA is a member of Un-Lock Our Jobs, a coalition that fights for keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes without closing the locks.

Denzler said the waterway is essential for transportation of resources like grain, coal, petroleum and road salt, and closing the waterway would cost tens of thousands of jobs.

According to the Un-Lock Our Jobs website, $29 billion worth of materials pass through the waterway each year, and a DePaul University study estimated that closing the locks would cost the Chicago area alone over $582 million in the first year.

Denzler emphasized that closing the waterway would also be environmentally damaging. Without a waterway, he said, materials would have to be transported by semi trucks, which get around 59 miles to the gallon, as opposed to barges, which average around 514 miles per gallon.

“From an environmental standpoint, every barge that’s used is equivalent to about 80 semi trucks,” he said. “That’s about 6,000 semi trucks of materials in a week … that’s a convoy that would go from Chicago all the way to Milwaukee.”

Denzler said the members of Un-Lock Our Jobs care about the environment and appreciate the severity of an Asian carp invasion just as much as anyone else but believe that there are other ways to defend the Great Lakes.

He said he didn’t think the electric barrier was enough to deter the Asian carp, but additional defenses like bubble barriers, toxins and fish reproduction control could solve the problem without having to close the locks.

Denzler said that the political response to last week’s catch was a “knee-jerk reaction” and that it’s still unclear how the fish even arrived in Lake Calumet in the first place. It could have swum up the river, he said, but it also could have been accidentally dumped there by someone.

In a June 3 report from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, Colonel Vincent Quarles was quoted as saying that closing the locks would not be an effective method of keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

“Our analysis incorporated information gathered from USFWS and other Asian carp experts. In the end the analysis showed that using measures such as temporary lock closures will do very little to reduce the risk of Asian carp migration,” Quarles said.

Brammeier said that the concerns from members of Un-Lock Our Jobs don’t apply to the hydrological separation that Alliance for the Great Lakes advocates for because the permanent barrier would be in a different location that would not interfere with significant resource transportation.

“Those locks were built to move water, not to stop fish, and their locations were chosen for that purpose. Frankly, the locks don’t tell us much if anything about where a permanent separation should take place, so any argument about what closing locks would do isn’t relevant," Brammeier said.

Last Friday, a group of senators from the Great Lakes region, including Stabenow, Durbin and Senator Carl Levin (D–Mich.), sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking for the immediate appointment of a Coordinated Response Commander who would oversee the day-to-day efforts of federal, state and local agencies in keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

Another letter to Obama was signed yesterday by 14 senators and 33 representatives of Congress, urging the administration to act immediately in the interest of protecting the lakes.

Brammeier said that whatever effective temporary solutions that can be done should be done, but ultimately federal officials need to work harder for a long-term solution.

“What we’re learning is these fish move fast, and for us to have any shot at protecting the lakes is, we have to move faster,” he said.