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The Carp are Coming, The Carp are Coming, The Carp are Already Here

Heartland Institute 9 July 2010 One Comment

A commercial fisherman caught a 20-pound Asian carp at Lake Calumet on Chicago’s South Side, news that sends chills up the spines of people who love Lake Michigan.

The news may be chilling, but to people who know fish, it’s not surprising.

It’s chilling because the location is well beyond a multimillion-dollar “electric barrier” the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed in the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal several years ago. The barrier is supposed to block the fish from swimming up the canal and into Lake Michigan, where they could devastate the ecosystem.

It’s not surprising, however, because there is no way to keep Asian carp out of the lake, no matter how many millions of dollars governments spend trying.

The canal was completed in 1900 to reverse the flow of the Chicago River to carry Chicago’s wastewater away from the lake and eventually into the Illinois River. Until then, there was a natural barrier between the lake and river systems. The canal cut through that barrier to create a manmade link between Lake Michigan and the Illinois and Mississippi River systems. Shipping soon followed.

Asian carp were brought to this country about 40 years ago because they are voracious bottom feeders. Commercial catfish farmers in Mississippi used them to clean up their ponds.

Streams and rivers flooded into the ponds in the 1990s, and some fish escaped. Their offspring have spread hundreds of miles upriver. They multiply in huge numbers and bottom-feed on life forms near the bottom of the food chain—foods that small and young fish need to survive. The loss of those smaller fish means fish higher up the food chain have little to eat.

Even if the canal locks were closed, as environmentalists and officials in other Great Lakes states are demanding, it won’t matter. There are other ways for Asian carp to get into Lake Michigan.

You can bet some people would like to catch huge carp in Lake Michigan. They will be tempted to catch carp in a nearby river or canal and put them in the lake. They won’t care that it’s against the law.

In 2004 a fisherman caught a 45-pound Asian carp in the McKinley Park lagoon, some 30 miles from the canal. It was probably dumped there after having been caught somewhere else.

Waterfowl also play a part by flying from carp-infested waters, where sticky carp eggs can attach themselves to the birds, and then to Lake Michigan. There the eggs will fall into the lake to hatch. There’s no way to stop this.

Once the fish are established, there’s probably no way to control them.
They grow bigger than the salmon that have been put in Lake Michigan, so there’s no way the salmon can eat them.

Even if we could dump shiploads of the fish-killing chemical rotenone in the lake, it kills all fish, and Lake Michigan has many species that cannot be restocked. If by some miracle we could restock every native species of fish and other aquatic animal, the carp still would be lurking in nearby rivers and canals, ready to return to the lake.

Commercial fishermen could catch them, but how many fried carp dinners can restaurants sell? The fish could be used for fertilizer, animal feed, etc., but there are already other sources for these.

We could subsidize the catching and processing of Asian carp, but we’d probably end up with more dead fish than can be used, as tends to happen with subsidized products. And before long we’d have businesses defending the carp because the subsidies would create a carp constituency.

We are right to feel that chill up our spines. We should have felt it 40 years ago.


Steve Stanek (sstanek@heartland.org) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute in Chicago who has been catching and studying fish as an avocation for nearly 50 years.

image Hiroshima Toyo Carp baseball logo

One Comment »

  • janusz pedzinski said:

    I couldn’t agree more but I’m afraid instead of sitting down, relaxing and letting mother nature finish it’s plan we have to create lot more havoc not to mention wasting millions then finally concede. Then if not feeling better at least we will not have moral hangover blaming ourselves for doing nothing.
    Remember zebra mussel? Feels like native species by now doesn’t it?
    40 years ago back in my old country college professor told us: when you interfere with nature you end up having never ending experiment.
    If you follow news about Great Lakes over the years isn’t it exactly what he was talking about?
    What is percentage of native species of fish in those waters?
    Back to Asian carp.
    Lake Michigan waters are not exactly like Mississippi or Illinois river so how do we know that flying carp population is going to explode when/not if/ they get in?
    Has anybody studied habitat of those species in China in order to have better understanding about possible outcome here.
    Besides as far as I know almost every invasive species in brand new environment multiplies very quickly at the beginning and then the nature imposes restrictions in form of natural predator or disease.
    Even if Asian carp established itself in Lake Michigan permanently, harvesting and selling them to China would make me feel little bit more proud citizen since unlike carp coming out of waters of Illinois river carp is being sold as fish coming out of cleanest waters of North America.
    Give me a brake, many people fish but do not have courage to eat fish coming out of Illinois River.
    I rather enjoy watching barges on the move constantly mixing diesel exhaust with the water.

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