BY GARY MAY
It sounds like a fisherman’s dream: A river so teeming with giant fish they leap into the air — and sometimes into your boat.
Instead, the sight that greets fishermen along the Mississippi River and its tributaries around Chicago has them cowering at the prospect that the phenomenon is headed for the Great Lakes. And so far, the Ontario government has no plan in place in the event they make it.
The fish that jump friskily from the waters of several northern U.S. states are Asian carp, a species that’s considered a delicacy in much of the world, but whose extremely bony nature has kept it off the plates of North Americans. With few people interested in catching it, and with no known enemies in the aquatic world, the Asian carp is living the high life, swimming for all it’s worth north toward Lake Michigan.
For commercial and recreational navigational purposes, Lake Michigan is artificially linked to the Mississippi River basin by a canal at Chicago.
One carp was recently spotted just 10 kilometres from the lake near Chicago, and some fear these fish with the mighty appetite — they can devour 40 per cent of their weight in a day — have already made it. Once they do, it’s feared they’ll establish a bridgehead and continue into the other lakes.
In that event, the fish that can grow to two metres in length and weigh 45 kilograms could cause irreversible harm to the commercial and sport fishery of the Great Lakes, a business valued at $7 billion a year on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.
In Ontario alone, about 1.4 million anglers fish annually and spend more than $2.3 billion on fishery-related goods and services. As well, the commercial fishery, based primarily in Lake Erie, is valued at $200 million.
Lawsuit launched to block canal link to lake
This week, five U.S. states — Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Wisconsin — launched a lawsuit against their federal government, aimed at pressuring the Army Corps of Engineers to step up efforts to block the Asian carp’s entry into the lakes. The engineers control the shipping locks and gates between the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan.
What they want — and Ontario has given its blessing for the idea — is to cut off the canal link, thus eliminating the route the fish could otherwise take into the Great Lakes. So far, all that’s standing in their way is an electric fence and the watchful eyes of Illinois state fishery officials.
In Ontario, an official with the Ministry of Natural Resources says the province filed a brief in support of an earlier U.S. lawsuit and endorses the latest legal action. Beyond that, “we’re looking at opportunities, at whether there’s a role we can play in the court case.”
Ontario’s preferred action is to shut off the canal, the official told MyNewWaterfrontHome.com.
Peter Meisenheimer, executive director of the Ontario Commercial Fisheries Association in Blenheim, says the issue is far broader than one species of fish, however. Meisenheimer tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com it goes to the heart of all the environmental rhetoric about preserving biodiversity and sustainability in the Great Lakes basin.
“This is a deeply frustrating issue,” he says. “It’s not just about this carp, but about exotic invasive species in total. There needs to be a joint (Canada-U.S.) strategy on invasive species.”
Over the course of years, a new foreign species has been introduced into the Great Lakes on an average of every nine months. The fact that the shipping industry claims to have the problem under control and says there have been no new species introduced since 2006, says Meisenheimer, is irrelevant. He says even if that’s true, there’s no guarantee there won’t be two or three new ones next year.
“It’s too early to say if the problem has stopped,” he says. The Asian carp was introduced into the southern United States in the 1970s to help control the spread of algae in carp farms. The fish escaped into the wild and began its steady move northward. It was believed an electric fence, built at a cost of $9 million, would contain the fish, but the recent spotting of a carp just 10 kilometres from Lake Michigan suggests that won’t be enough.
But officially, at least, Illinois authorities are expressing confidence they’ll be able to keep the carp penned in.
If the fish enters Lake Michigan, U.S. authorities say they are prepared to fight it there, preventing it from becoming adequately established to spread into the other Great Lakes. Some doubt man’s ability to do so, however.
'The race to save the lakes'
Meanwhile, drumming up public support for government action has become an important component of the fight. That’s why Great Lakes United, a coalition that seeks to increase public awareness of threats to the world’s largest freshwater eco-system, used this summer’s Tall Ships Challenge to spread information about the Asian carp and other threats.
The Challenge, which got under way in Toronto with the Redpath Toronto Waterfront Festival and then visited Cleveland and Bay City, Michigan, was quickly dubbed “the race to save the lakes.”
On the legislative front, Meisenheimer serves on the Canadian committee of advisers to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, established in 1955 to co-ordinate fisheries research and management, and control invasive species.
The commission supports legislation to force the physical separation of the Mississippi and Great Lakes basins, through the closing of the man-made link that could serve as the Asian carp’s entry into Lake Michigan. With strong commercial and political powers opposing such a move, Meisenheimer says the Asian carp serves as a test case that will determine whether those in high office are truly committed to preserving biodiversity and sustainability.
In the United States, the Obama administration has been criticized for failing to take the issue seriously enough and for dragging its feet on taking the necessary action. In Canada, officials seem prepared only to watch and wait for U.S. action, given that all the developments so far have taken place outside of this country. Ontario did, however, ban the live sale and importation of Asian carp in 2004.
In the wild, the Asian carp already outnumber native fish in many areas of the United States.
Kevin Irons, an ecologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, is a key figure in that state’s fight to stop the carp. Irons estimates there are as many as 4,100 adult silver Asian carp per mile in the Illinois River. That’s 13 tons of fish in a single mile of the river.
There are two types of Asian carp — silver and bighead. Both eat native fish such as catfish and buffalo. That’s why they’ve been able to edge out the other species.
Meisenheimer says even if the carp does enter the Great Lakes, no one knows how it will fare in their waters. For example, the carp thrived in shallower streams and fish farms, but might not adapt easily to the deeper lakes.
Meanwhile, even though Ontario’s Natural Resources Ministry says it has not formulated a plan of attack if the worst happens, Meisenheimer fears that the province’s first response will be to further restrict the commercial fishermen’s access to their catch. The commercial fishery is, after all, considerably smaller than the sport fishing industry.
Meisenheimer uses the example of the native American eel, whose migration route was disrupted by the construction of power dams along its natural pathway from the ocean into the lakes. Rather than force the power companies to find ways to facilitate the eel’s migratory path, regulatory agencies reacted by shutting down the American eel fishery.
“It’s the kind of response we’d expect again,” he says.
It is estimated there are 185 foreign species now established in the Great Lakes basin, including zebra mussels, sea lampreys and round gobies.
Meanwhile, there are the occasional happy stories associated with the expansion of the Asian carp’s territory. An enterprising fisherman in Missouri recently found a use for the fish, even if it’s not considered fit for human consumption: he used it as bait in a fishing tournament and captured a record 130-pound catfish.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — July 2010