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updated: 2/14/2011 10:25 AM

Asian carp called the biggest threat to Great Lakes in years

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  • Silver carp, a variety of Asian carp, jump out of the water after being disturbed by sounds of watercraft on the Illinois River.

      Silver carp, a variety of Asian carp, jump out of the water after being disturbed by sounds of watercraft on the Illinois River.
    Associated Press

  • Asian bighead carp, in an exhibit at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium.

      Asian bighead carp, in an exhibit at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium.
    Associated Press

  • Matt Porter

      Matt Porter

  • Matt Porter with a big catch aboard his boat, the Jackpot, which he operates through his company, Jackpot Fishing Charters, on Lake Michigan.

      Matt Porter with a big catch aboard his boat, the Jackpot, which he operates through his company, Jackpot Fishing Charters, on Lake Michigan.
    Courtesy of Matt Porter

  • Fish caught by anglers aboard Matt Porter's Jackpot Fishing Charters boat on Lake Michigan.

      Fish caught by anglers aboard Matt Porter's Jackpot Fishing Charters boat on Lake Michigan.
    Courtesy of Matt Porter

  • Fish caught by anglers aboard Matt Porter's Jackpot Fishing Charters boat on Lake Michigan.

      Fish caught by anglers aboard Matt Porter's Jackpot Fishing Charters boat on Lake Michigan.
    Courtesy of Matt Porter

  • ASSOCIATED PRESSA fish breaches the water's surface in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal in Lockport.

      ASSOCIATED PRESSA fish breaches the water's surface in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal in Lockport.

 
By Nicole Thompson

Matt Porter grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. He's been fishing there for 40 years. Now, the McHenry resident runs Jackpot Fishing Charters on Lake Michigan, where he and his customers fish for trout and salmon.

But what if those fish were gone? If the aggressive Asian carp currently multiplying in the Illinois and Mississippi rivers reach Lake Michigan, it's a possibility.

"It would probably put me out of business," Porter said.

The carp have nearly eliminated the fishing industry on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. That same industry in the Great Lakes is worth $7 billion a year, officials estimate.

Asian carp are an invasive species originally brought to the south from China in the 1970s to clean retention ponds. When their ponds flooded, the carp escaped into rivers and have been making their way up to the Great Lakes ever since.

The variety know as "bighead" carp can weigh up to 100 pounds and consume 40 percent of their body weight each day. Their size physically crowds out native fish and makes boat traffic and swimming hazardous. Their diet eliminates the food sources of native species, including those pursued by sport and commercial fishermen, and makes it nearly impossibly for them to survive.

Another variety of Asian carp, the silver carp, has become infamous for leaping out of the water as motor boats pass, often hitting people on the boat, as can be seen in numerous YouTube videos.

"Honestly, it's probably the biggest threat to the Great Lakes in my lifetime," Porter said. "It seems like the biologists for the Great Lakes always say the sky is falling over some invasive species and I don't get too worried about it. But I've seen what has happened with the carp in the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, and they've taken over."

Ironically, were it not for another invasive species, Porter, 50, would not be in business. Alewives, a species of herring, overcrowded Lake Michigan in the 1960s. Their presence was so great that dump trucks had to visit beaches each morning to haul the vast number of washed-up fish. Then, biologists introduced salmon to the lake to compete with the alewives. The salmon proved successful, and Porter makes his living pursuing salmon, as well as trout.

The Asian carp threat has prompted suburban Republican Congresswoman Judy Biggert to team up with Illinois' senior senator, Democrat Dick Durbin, to find solutions before it happens.

"We have to protect the greatest freshwater bodies we have," said Biggert. "This would be a real disaster."

The carp's economic impact goes beyond sport fishing. Hotels along fishing ports rely on sport fishermen for their clientele. So do bait and tackle shops. And restaurants could find it hard, or very expensive, to provide certain fish that compete with Asian carp, like trout and salmon, on their menus.

Populations of Asian carp have not been found in Lake Michigan yet, and it is unknown whether they would be able to survive there. Lake Michigan's waters are colder and deeper than any other bodies where carp now thrive. They prefer smaller, warmer waters, like the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

But their presence in the Chicago Sanitary and Shipping Canals is the closest the species has come to entering any of the Great Lakes. The man-made canals connect the Illinois and Mississippi rivers to Lake Michigan, providing a route for the invasive species to the lake. The carp are held back by an electric barrier that has so far been successful, but their population south of the barrier continues to grow.

Biggert, of Hinsdale, and Durbin, of Springfield, have been fighting to solve this issue for years. Together they have secured more than $25 million in federal funds to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. The state of Illinois has contributed even more funding.

"It's expensive," Biggert said. "And now we're facing spending cuts and a moratorium on earmarks, so we'll see what happens with the funding."

There is much debate over the best way to solve the problem. A lawsuit has been filed by every Great Lakes state except Illinois to close the Chicago locks that allow flow of water, and potentially Asian carp, between Lake Michigan and the Chicago Sanitary and Shipping Canal.

The lawsuit has been struck down once by a federal judge but remains in play. Biggert argues that shutting the locks would not only cause flooding of 51 Chicago suburbs, but it also could have a disastrous effect on the Chicago economy. Barge traffic, which delivers key commodities such as asphalt, salt and oil, to Illinois cities would stop. Local leaders who salt their roads during the winter have expressed concern to Biggert's office about increased price of salt. Gas prices would stand to increase as well, opponents of the lawsuit contend.

Lawmakers also say the carp could affect water quality, citing the murky Illinois River, filled with Asian carp, as an example. Those in the business, however, are not so concerned about this prospect.

Terry McGhee is the interim director of the DuPage Water Commission, which serves more than two dozen municipalities in DuPage County with Lake Michigan water.

"It does not concern me as a water provider," McGhee said. "The city of Chicago's water treatment system can handle it."

There was similar concern when zebra mussels, another invasive species, came to Lake Michigan, but they have not proved to be a substantial problem for water supply or quality. Like the carp, they actually make water cleaner, which McGhee said makes it harder to treat.

"I know that's a little contradictory, but when the water's not as clean it's easier to treat," he said.

While many have expressed concern about Asian carp entering Lake Michigan, others think the issue needs refocusing.

Kirby Marsden, president of the Illinois Commercial Fishing Association, says the real problem is in the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, where he says Asian carp make up 95 percent of the population in some places.

"There's big devastation that nobody's looking at," Marsden said. "They've done what needs to be done for the lake; now it's time to put the money downstate and fix the problem."

As Asian carp have crowded out native species in the rivers, they have also deteriorated the economies of those towns that rely on fishing for income and jobs. According to Marsden, the fish are easy to catch. He believes the best solution is to develop a market to sell and get rid of the fish.

In July, Gov. Pat Quinn announced an agreement to catch and sell the fish to China. He says, "If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em."

Biggert wants to get rid of the fish using the latest science and technology, such as bubble barriers and rotenone, a poison that kills only the carp. The Army Corps of Engineers is still studying these methods.

Other Illinois representatives also have worked to solve the Asian carp problem. Congressman Peter Roskam, a Republican from Wheaton, requested federal funding for a barrier in fiscal year 2010. Congressman Randy Hultgren, a Republican from Winfield, said he supports last year's Asian Carp Prevention and Control Act, which defined Asian carp as an invasive species, and looks forward to working with other congressmen to protect the Great Lakes.

Biggert plans to meet with the new Illinois delegates in the next couple of weeks to brief them on the issue.

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