According to the Nature Conservancy, invasive aquatic species cost America's Great Lakes an estimated $50 million annually in lost tourism revenue alone.
While numerous forms of invasive aquatic life threaten U.S. waterways, Asian Carp appear to be “Public Enemy Number 1” – particularly in Illinois, where the uninvited guests are now the dominant fish in most major rivers.
Since their diet is limited solely to plankton, they compete with native species for food. But some entrepreneurs want to make Asian Carp part of the human diet.
As Josh Buettner discovered last summer, while officials desperately try to eradicate the invaders, others say, “if you can’t beat ‘em… eat ‘em.”
During the summer, myriad outdoor opportunities are in full bloom across America. For boating enthusiasts, sunshine and rising temperatures present a chance to cut loose on the water. But for some Midwest mariners, the whir of a boat motor can cue a most unusual phenomenon.
Asian Carp, an invasive species capable of decimating native fish populations, have used the Mississippi River as a superhighway…threatening to infiltrate every nook and cranny of her tributaries. Bighead and Silver, two of the four varieties of the Yangtze River natives, have become a major nuisance in the central U.S.
Mike Hawkins, Fisheries Management Biologist - Iowa Department of Natural Resources: “The Silver Carp are known for their ability to jump out of the water when they are spooked. Prop noise from a boat, or even the hull noise of the boat splashing in the water can cause these fish to jump out of the water. It’s a defense mechanism that the fish have to get away from danger. Folks have seen the videos of those fish jumping up into boats…people have been injured…where a fish has jumped out of the water and crossed their path.”
Imported to clean algae from Arkansas catfish farms in the 1970’s, these maligned fish, revered in Asian culture as symbols of hard work and perseverance, escaped, due to flooding, into nearby waterways…that fed into the Mississippi River. Over the years their numbers have grown…into a massive horde.
Dr. Timothy Leeds, Obstetrician - Ames, Iowa: “The carp are prolific breeders. One female can hatch up to four million eggs per year. They eat constantly. They can double their weight in a week. There aren’t any natural predators that eat them when they’re small because they grow too fast.”
Ironically, Silver Carp pose their greatest threat to people during their smaller, juvenile stage of development. Biologists assure the fish are no longer prone to jump once they weigh over ten pounds. Their diet, however, is another matter…
Joe Larsheid, Chief of Fisheries - Iowa Department of Natural Resources: “So this is a Silver Carp. They get much bigger than this. They filter the water for zooplankton which is a critical food link for most of our native fish.”
The Illinois River has borne the brunt of Asian Carp, with the aquatic barbarians storming the gates of Lake Michigan, via the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which connects the two bodies of water. Though the fish are known for spawning in rivers as opposed to lake environments, the federal government isn’t willing to play that hunch.
To tackle the issue nationwide, the Obama Administration appointed a “carp czar” of sorts in John Goss, former Director of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Goss’ own state has fielded similar threats in the Wabash River, which connects to Lake Erie.
The centerpiece for deterrents is an electrical barrier in Chicago. A series of electrodes across the bottom of the canal send low voltage electricity into the water. When fish approach the electrical field, they are repelled back downstream. Manufacturers and proponents insist the levels are safe for fish and humans, but standard warnings are in place.
Dr. Timothy Leeds, Obstetrician - Ames, Iowa: “Problem is, you’re not going to be able to engineer your way around a biological problem.”
Dr. Timothy Leeds of Ames, Iowa was a partner in one of the few early groups who’d had an entrepreneurial epiphany of how to deplete the infestation.
Dr. Timothy Leeds, Obstetrician, Ames, Iowa: “We initially had a plant set up in Havana, Illinois, and it was more of a show and smell plant than anything else. Take the carp in, process them, convince your neighbors that it doesn’t reek.”
Though the doctor was driven to succeed, the state of Illinois has been hit hard financially in recent years. Without additional state investment in the project, Leeds’ company was unable to maintain operation.
Dr. Timothy Leeds - Obstetrician, Ames, Iowa: “Well, so, it was..we can close a hospital, and fund your carp plant, or we could not fund your carp plant. So we got on the chopping block.”
But down river in Grafton, Illinois, another group of investors struck a deal to export 35 million pounds of Asian Carp to China over the next three years.
American Heartland Fish Processing is poised to boost the local economy by creating 35 processing plant jobs, and throw commercial fishermen a lifeline by turning their problem into profit.
Dr. Timothy Leeds, Obstetrician - Ames, Iowa: “The fishing industry is dead most up and down the Mississippi, and now it’s coming up the Missouri and it’s going to hit those tributaries also.”
Further upstream, Dr. Leeds’ own state of Iowa has seen its share of Asian Carp.
Joe Larsheid, Chief of Fisheries – Iowa Department of Natural Resources: “We’re constantly documenting the spread of Asian Carp throughout the state. They’re really prevalent in our larger river systems.”
The record flooding in 2011 on the Missouri River, itself a Mississippi tributary, emboldened Bighead and Silver Carp to venture into northwest Iowa, knocking on the door of Iowa’s Great Lakes, a popular recreational destination.
Practically a microcosm of the national struggle, the chain of six glacial lakes is connected to the Missouri via the Little Sioux River and Mill Creek, at the Lower Gar spillway. Asian Carp were first landed in the lake chain in August 2011. A wave of stewardship promptly followed in their wake.
Phil Petersen, Executive Director – Iowa Great Lakes Association: “We basically raised 700 thousand in about, uh, three months.”
Fearing a ruined regional economy, citizens and local business owners petitioned the Iowa Legislature to appropriate money for a blockade. Political gridlock kept that option off the table, though the Iowa Department of Natural Resources was itself able to allocate more funds.
The final piece of the puzzle came in a partnership with the state of Minnesota. The land of ten-thousand lakes had already approved a ten million dollar multi-pronged approach to attacking the problem of invasive species within its own borders. Tacking on to Iowa’s in-progress solution became a way to cut costs while protecting the lakes and streams in the two states’ shared watershed from Asian Carp.
Mike Hawkins, Fisheries Management Biologist - Iowa Department of Natural Resources: ”We don’t think that these fish can reproduce in a natural lake. So if that’s the only way for their numbers to increase is during these flood events, then putting some type of a barrier in place, on the downstream side of the Iowa Great Lakes, is one way that would prevent them from moving upstream.”
Larry Stoller, President – Stoller Fisheries: “I guess my thought on the electrical barrier is it’s kind of like chicken soup. I am not sure that it’s going to help but it certainly won’t hurt.”
Though viewed by many as a scourge, niche markets do exist for carp. Stoller Fisheries, in nearby Spirit Lake, Iowa, has been processing fresh water rough fish since 1932.
Larry Stoller, President – Stoller Fisheries: ”We’re something like a slaughterhouse for beef or cattle. They’re reduced to the edible parts and the inedible parts. Most of it is mechanically deboned so it looks like hamburger when it comes out. The product is very acceptable for making fish sticks…fish patties. Our primary customers are in the kosher industry. They’re making a Jewish traditional product called Gefilte Fish.”
Should Bighead or Silver Carp gain a foothold in Iowa’s Great Lakes, Stoller assures they are set-up to handle an onslaught.
Larry Stoller, President – Stoller Fisheries: “We are set-up, in fact, we’ve been processing Asian Carp from the Illinois area for probably five or six years. If there were fish in these lakes, we would process them, yes. But we’re not welcoming them to the area.”
Joe Larsheid, Cheif of Fisheries - Iowa Department of Natural Resources: “On the positive side…Silver Carp and Bighead Carp are very good to eat. The Common Carp that have been here since the 1880’s…they’re mucking up on the bottom. These don’t. They are eating the same thing that really salmon eat.”
Dr. Timothy Leeds, Obstetrician – Ames, Iowa: “What is the other choice for carp? In Asia they eat six times as much fish as we do and carp for them is a delicacy. If we could get the carp back to Asia there is a major market for the fish there. The only thing that has ever been shown to help with carp is to over fish them. But you can’t over fish them if you don’t have an end market. So we’re trying to create an end market from scratch.”
For Market To Market, I’m Josh Buettner.