The Great Lakes Have an Asian Carp Problem

Asian carp have invaded the Great Lakes, pushing out other species in whatever area they choose to establish their territory. These invasive carp are currently approaching Lake Michigan on their ravaging journey, threatening to bring extinction to most (if not all) of the lake’s natural species of fish. Needless to say, this problem concerns nearly everyone in the Lake Michigan area because many jobs depend on the lake keeping up a healthy habitat for its native fish species.

A brief history and description of how Asian carp got here and their habits will help explain the problem. In the 1970s, fish farmers imported Asian carp into Arkansas to help get rid of algae on their catfish ponds. Within 10 years, flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers enabled the fish to escape. Since then, Asian carp have made their way into different bodies of water and are approaching Lake Michigan right now. These fish act aggressively and adapt easily to waters they come to. They could soon outcompete the native species of fish. Louisiana Seafood News shares the disturbing news that “A mature female can produce between 100,000 and 3 million eggs each spawning.” They can eat up to 20 percent of their body weight per day in algae and plankton, a fish’s main food source, and can weigh up to 200 pounds. No one doubts that if a means of containing the carp isn’t found soon, they will invade and most likely dominate Lake Michigan.

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The Asian carp problem worries Michigan’s residents because it threatens to extinguish jobs and recreational activities while severely damaging the ecosystem. Jobs aren’t easy to come by these days, and job l0ss threatens the welfare of every family in the community in one way or another. If these Asian carp take over Lake Michigan, a $7 billion fisheries industry goes down the drain, which would devastate an already struggling economy. Mike Cox, attorney general of Michigan, said that hundreds of thousands of jobs depend on Lake Michigan. There is no market for Asian carp, so if they invade the lake and push the native fish species out, the fisheries industry dies and all those families lose their jobs. Recreational activities are also at risk because if the native species of fish leave or die out, not much desire to fish on the lake remains.

Michigan residents rightly worry about these things and are trying to prevent a possible invasion. Political leaders and local residents have shown their concern by reaching out and coming together to solve the problem as quickly as possible. David A. Ulrich, executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities initiative, which seeks to protect the Great Lakes along with the St. Lawrence River from all things unhealthy, has brought the lakes mayors together to come up with a solution. Although everyone knows there are no quick fixes, Ulrich now has 70 lakes mayors in his group, all of whom are working together to find the best answer to the invasion problem. Nick De Leeuw, a spokesperson for Mike Cox, the attorney general of Michigan, said of the Asian carp invasion, “This is an economic and environmental emergency.” David Naftzger, executive director of the Council of the Great Lakes, agrees and points out that there have been ongoing efforts to work together in the region to fight invasive species, including these carp. For instance, to prevent Asian carp DNA from entering the lake, some of the political leaders have asked those who boat on Lake Michigan and the connecting waterways to clean their boats before entering Lake Michigan. Much of the boating population are complying with this request.

Active solutions to the possible invasion have shown some good results but won’t be enough to stop the invasion altogether. One of the solutions currently in place features electric barriers due to the dictum that the “U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is under orders from Congress to develop a study on effective methods of preventing the spread of Asian carp,” says the National Wildlife Federation. The Army Corps has set up three electric barriers in the Chicago River to prevent the carp from reaching Lake Michigan. While this has helped some, the ultimate solution, here, cannot consist only of the electric barriers because the fish can penetrate them. In the case of a power outage, the carp can slip by the fences unharmed. No Asian carp seem to exist in Lake Michigan yet, but the Michigan Department of Natural Resources have already found DNA evidence of the invasive species on the Lake Michigan side of the electric barriers. Boating and fishing could have brought the DNA into the lake without Asian carp actually living there, hence the request for people to clean their boats. Genetic evidence of Asian carp has revealed itself about six miles into Lake Michigan, so these fish could soon reach the worst fears of the Michiganders.

Electric barriers are by no means the only possible solution to the invasion. Louisiana Chef Philippe Parola wants to implement a plan to eat the fish, which he believes would greatly help in getting rid of the carp. Parola wants to start a commercial Asian carp fishing industry that would allow fishermen to fish specifically for Asian carp during a certain time of year. Commercial fishers can easily catch 25,000 pounds of native carp per day, so it would greatly profit Lake Michigan if someone established a commercial Asian carp fishing industry. The fishermen would sell the catches to food places, which would then serve them to their customers. Right now, the desire to eat Asian carp does not go over very well in many peoples’ minds. Parola said that people mistakenly think of Asian carp like any native species of carp that eat their food from the bottom of the river or lake and a have wilder, fishier taste. Asian carp, however, have a milder and flakier taste, much like delicate crab meat. If Parola could effectively disseminate this truth to the population, the market for Asian carp would grow, thus helping to minimize the invasion problem.

Other tentative plans for minimizing the invasion include poisoning and trapping the fish. Amy Kraft, a freelance writer, argues that the poison being developed for this task would only work against Asian carp, keeping the native species of fish free from harm. The future plan suggests putting the poison in packages that only Asian carp can digest thoroughly enough for the poison to affect them. In order to trap the fish, someone would set bait to lure them to a place where they can be easily captured in mass. Once trapped, the trappers could sell them to restaurants that would serve them on their menus; or they could even donate them to the poor.

Hydraulic separation of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River seems like the most hopeful strategy. U.S. Representative Candice Miller strongly supports this idea. She says that because Asian carp DNA was found in Lake Michigan, those in leadership positions must take extreme measures to prevent an invasion. Attorney General Cox also seeks ultimately to have the Chicago River and Lake Michigan entirely separated. Both Miller and Cox think this is the only way to prevent the invasion from spreading to Lake Michigan.

The downside to closing off the Chicago River from Lake Michigan is that it could harm the barge industry and affect the Chicago area’s wastewater infrastructure. The New York Times explains that the state built the canal to connect the two waterways over a century ago. Barges then traveled between the two, and over time, this helped carry sewage away from Chicago and Lake Michigan. A permanent separation of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River would require changes to the Chicago area’s wastewater system and cost the barge industry over $200 million per year. Suzanne Malec-McKenna, commissioner of the Department of Environment, said, “While we recognize that Asian carp pose a significant threat to the Great Lakes, shutting down the waterway system . . . before fully understanding the impact it would have on the movement of people, goods and storm water is a shortsighted answer to a complex problem.” What stands in the way is that no time remains to waste on figuring out a solution to this problem; if political leaders spend too much time trying to completely separate the two waterways, they might end up not preventing the problem at all.

This said, leaders should not make a rash decision on an issue this significant. The choice to cut off the waterways completely from each other would be an $18 billion endeavor and take an estimated 25 years to complete. Asian carp have already multiplied and invaded quickly over the last thirty years, so another 25 years could prove too long to keep the Asian carp at bay. They could infest Lake Michigan and make their habitat there in that amount of time. In order to make this idea work, combining some of the previously stated ideas with this one would probably work more to the lake’s advantage. Perhaps the state could choose to separate Lake Michigan from the Chicago River while the Army Corps set electric barriers and traps in place and an Asian carp fishing season opened up. Maybe this would keep the Asian carp from reaching the lake for the time needed to build the permanent barrier. Only time will tell which preventive measures, if any, work most effectively. Ultimately the barge industry will have to put out more money if Lake Michigan is separated from the Chicago River; but if the separation isn’t made, too many families will be out of work, which could collapse the economy. The ideas just outlined (along with others) could work, and whoever has the authority to put those ideas into action needs to do it and do it soon, before it’s too late.