As Asian carp, a group of invasive species of fish, threaten to infiltrate the Great Lakes, University faculty are offering their expert opinions and man hours to help government officials combat the problem.
Faculty members within the School of Natural Resources and Program in the Environment have offered their advice to news outlets, researchers and state, local and federal government leaders and are currently participating in the state’s efforts to lobby President Barack Obama’s administration for help.
The Obama administration announced Monday a $78.5 million plan to control the spread of the invasive species to Lake Michigan, the Associated Press reported.
According to the AP, the plan — called the Asian Carp Control Strategy Framework — has faced criticism for not proposing to completely close the shipping lanes between the carp’s route to Lake Michigan and the lake itself.
According to experts, Asian carp breed quickly and eat plankton that other native species need to survive. The fish, which can weigh up to 60 lbs. when mature, can also injure boaters and anglers when they leap from the water.
Experts and officials are mainly concerned about the fish entering Lake Michigan through a sanitation waterway in Chicago, which connects the lake to the Mississippi River drainage.
The main measure built to prevent the fish from entering the Great Lakes was an attempt in 2009 to strengthen an electrical barrier built in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
Jim Diana, director of the Michigan Sea Grant College Program and professor of fisheries and aquaculture in the School of Natural Resources, studied Asian carp extensively in China before they were discovered in Lake Michigan.
Diana said he was unable to estimate how many fish entering the lake would allow a population to start, but that it’s important to keep the carp from moving into the lake.
“What number of fish is necessary to actually seed the lake and get a population growing, I don’t think anybody could tell you,” Diana said.
Though many factors are unclear, Diana said the principle actors like the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency shouldn’t wait for the problem to increase in severity.
“We don’t really know what the end result will be if they’re introduced in large enough breeding populations to be successful, but we shouldn’t test that,” he said.
Marc Gaden, communications director and legislative liaison for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, has been working on the issue’s policy side for 10 years and says pursuing completion of the new barrier is a slow legislative process.
“We had to get the original barrier authorized, we had to get the newer, bigger, stronger one authorized in 2007, and then we had to get the funding for it, which took lobbying Congress,” said Gaden, who is also an adjunct professor in the School of Natural Resources and lecturer in the Program in the Environment.
“You can see that things aren’t moving at the speed of light. Meanwhile, the fish are swimming toward the lake,” Gaden said.
As part of his job, Gaden said he routinely speaks with lobbyists, journalists and politicians.
The new electrical barrier, however, may not be 100 percent effective at keeping Asian carp out from flowing into Lake Michigan, according to David Jude, an adjunct professor in the School of Natural Resources.
Jude helped set voltage limits for the original barrier, which successfully deterred a majority of round gobies from passing through the canal.
Jude said the effectiveness of the new barrier is essentially proportional to the size of the fish — the larger the fish, the more of a shock it gets.
“As a result, fish larvae are in some cases able to float right on through the barrier and survive the shock,” Jude said, adding that power failures and floods could also pose problems.
But unlike the round goby, Jude said Asian carp require a long stretch of flowing water in order to spawn, since their eggs must stay afloat for two days in order to hatch.
Despite the barrier’s spotty success with Asian carp, Diana said the carp would still have trouble surviving in a lake environment.
“I think the common perception that the carp will be as abundant in the Great Lakes as they are in the Mississippi River system is really not realistic,” Diana said. “There’s just not enough food for them out there in the deep water, as opposed to the shallow rivers.”
Given this fact, Gaden said achieving biological separation — a permanent solution separating the waterways — is now a higher priority than temporary measures like electric barriers and large scale poisonings called “fish kills.”
“It’s a porous system, so we’re talking about a lot of side canals and confluences where fish can get in during flooding,” Gaden said. “So now we need to get the Army Corps of Engineers’s authority to build a permanent barrier between the Chicago River and these side streams.”
Though Diana said he didn’t think the University would conduct research on the subject right now, he said if the problem continues to grow people might look to the University for help.
“If there were a really strong research question, I could see that happening, but currently it’s not well-defined enough,” Diana said.