Asian Carp Update

Program: All Things Sustainable

Reporter: Nikki Motson for MPRN

Airdate: 12/21/2010

From the Gulf Coast all the way up into the Midwest people have been hearing more and more about Asian carp. This year, several states got more serious about stopping an all out invasion of the Great Lakes. States like Michigan and others have filed lawsuits. Recently Michigan and the White House released new plans to protect America's largest fresh water system from the invasive fish. 

Imagining the importance of the Great Lakes is kind of like holding 20-bucks in your hand and knowing there's only 80-dollars left in the rest of the world, scattered about in small quantities. The 5 Great Lakes represent the single largest concentration of fresh water on Earth. It's 20-percent. And that 20-percent's had a tough year.

"Very few people understand how much fresh water we have in the Great Lakes and how much we have to protect our Great Lakes," says John Goss. He was born and raised in the Great Lakes region and he's been heavily focused on the health of the lakes since he got his new job last September. He's the man in charge of dealing with the most widely discussed threat to the lakes this year – a takeover of the Great Lakes water system by invasive Asian carp.

Where did these foreign carp come from and why are they such a threat? They were brought in from China in the 1970's. Southern Catfish farmers liked their voracious appetite for algae. And U.S. researchers were studying their ability to clean up wastewater and human sewage.

In 1993 they began their takeover of the Mississippi—after flooding gave them a free ride from their captive ponds right into Ol' Man River.

Soon, fishermen along the river were complaining of nets full of nothing but Asian carp.

But no one knew how quickly they were moving until 1999. After more flooding near St. Louis, scientists were shocked at what they found. Of the thousands of dead fish  - 97% were Asian carp.

In six years, that voracious appetite that first attracted people to them had killed off other fish all along the Mississippi.

The speed of this massive underwater takeover is frightening to Michigan's fishing families.

"I'm Amber Petersen. I live in Muskegon and I'm the owner of The Fish Monger's Wife, a retail fish market."

Amber Mae Petersen's whole life revolves around Lake Michigan and selling her husband's daily catch. His job is to pull the best Michigan whitefish out of the water, and her job is getting it onto people's plates quickly.

Which means, she's been watching news on the Asian carp closely.

"As far as planning for us, I would like to see as a whole us come together and decide what we're going to do for worst case scenario now, so we're not standing in crisis mode, going, 'Oh look, we have a river full of Asian carp, now what do we do?'".

Petersen says she wants to know there is a realistic plan in place if prevention fails.

A few days ago the White House Asian carp team announced $47-million dollars worth of funding to deal with the invasive carp in 2011.  Of that funding, $1-million-dollars is set aside for what's called "emergency rapid response".

The other 46-million dollars will go towards studying the problem, and looking at complex issues like separating the Chicago Sanitary & Shipping canal from Lake Michigan. Currently, Chicago's man-made canal system is the only direct route the fish have to swim into the Great Lakes.


The good news -- is that given a chance, Asian carp might not like living in the Great Lakes. The bad news on the other hand is that Michigan rivers might look really good to them. Dan O'Keefe, a scientist with Michigan Sea Grant says, "The Great Lakes may not be the most ideal habitat for these fish. The Grand River is probably ideal.   Another one is the Saginaw River system... and it empties into Saginaw Bay which is a very productive habitat."


... That's the sound of the Grand River, Michigan's largest. It would look and sound much different if it were full of jumping Asian carp.

As it stands right now, there is no simple solution to the Asian Carp dilemma. But DNA have already been found past the final barriers to Lake Michigan.

Researchers and policy makers agree, there's no way to guarantee the Asian carp can be kept out of the Great Lakes.

Michigan and other Great Lakes states are fighting to close the locks that artificially connected Lake Michigan to Chicago over a century ago.

 A ban on moving Asian carp across state lines was signed by President Obama last week.

Despite the threat posed by Asian carp and uncertainty over plans for a worst case scenario, the Fish Monger's Wife remains optimistic.

"Best case scenario is they just stop. You know, they see Lake Michigan, they get a little taste of how cold it is and they decide to turn around and head back to the Mississippi watershed."

As for what to do about the Asian carp that have already taken over much of the Mississippi River? So far the most promising idea seems to be selling them back to their native China as a jumping, thriving delicacy.

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