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Asian Carp Invade U.S. Rivers

posted on June 15, 2012

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During the summer time, 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.  The 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 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…meandering into the Mississippi River.

Over the years their numbers have grown…into a massive horde.

Dr. Timothy G. 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 are 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 Larscheid, 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.  The aquatic barbarians are now 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 has 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 G. Leeds, obstetrician, Ames, Iowa: “Problem is you’re not going to be able to engineer your way around a biological problem.”

Along with a partner in Illinois, Dr. Timothy Leeds of Ames, Iowa, had hatched an early plan to stave off Asian Carp before Illinois’ recent financial woes.

Dr. Timothy G. 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.”

Originally earmarked in the Illinois legislature, funds vanished…until this week when state officials endorsed another plan to bite on the problem.

Strengthening their resolve, Leeds and his associate are seeking private investors for a new plant, not necessarily in Illinois.

Incidentally, the doctor’s adopted home state of Iowa has begun to see its share of Asian Carp within her borders.

Joe Larscheid, Chief of Fisheries Iowa Department of Natural Resources: “We’re constantly documenting the spread of Asian Carp throughout the state.  They are 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 for 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.  When that fell victim to political gridlock, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources stepped up, allocating 300 thousand dollars.

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 is 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 larscheid, chief 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 G. 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.


Tags: Asian Carp Chicago Iowa Great Lakes


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