Asian carp threaten boaters, the Great Lakes
By Doug Haddix
The Columbus Dispatch
HAVANA, Ill. - Like fireworks from the deep, dozens of
Asian carp shot up to 10 feet out of the water as two
research boats plied the murky Illinois River.
When frightened by the sound of passing boats, the silver
carp jump, sometimes startling and injuring boat passengers.
‘‘We’ve heard stories of people getting hit in the face,
having their teeth knocked out or loosened or having their
nose broken," said Mark Pegg, an ecologist guiding
a 21-foot research boat earlier this month.
When the carp start popping, some Illinois River boaters
wield garbage-can lids or folding chairs as shields, said
Pegg, director of an Illinois Natural History Survey research
station at Havana, about 40 miles southwest of Peoria.
Because of some well-meaning American farmers and a flood,
millions of the flying silver carp and their cousins,
bighead carp, are swimming in U.S. rivers far from their
And now, only 50 miles of water and an experimental electric
barrier near Chicago stand between the advancing horde
and the Great Lakes, which could be devastated by the
‘‘It is a nightmare scenario for the Great Lakes,"
said Dennis L. Schornack, U.S. chairman of the International
Joint Commission, an agency that monitors waterways connecting
the United States and Canada.
‘‘They would take out the entire bottom of the food chain
that all commercial and sports fishing depends on."
The fish, which grow to an average 4 feet and 60 pounds,
made their way north to the Illinois River after escaping
from fish farms during massive flooding along the Mississippi
10 years ago.
The jumping silver carp on the Illinois River weigh an
average of 15 pounds. Older Asian carp farther south can
weigh up to 100 pounds.
Despite the potential devastation of the $4 billion Great
Lakes fishing industry, the government’s response has
been to cobble together what Schornack calls ‘‘a baling-wire
and chewing-gum fix."
Lack of more significant action ‘‘could turn the Great
Lakes into a carp pond," Schornack said.
The fix, which even supporters concede is not foolproof,
typifies the government response to destructive foreign
animals and plants: inadequate money, costly delays, and
a bureaucratic tangle of state and federal agencies.
Although the threats from such invaders have been known
for decades, governments at all levels have been slow
to act and even slower to spend money.
In the United States, 11 federal departments are involved
with invasive species, yet the buck stops at no particular
office. Each state has an approach - or lack of one -
to handling invasive plants and animals. City and county
The group charged with coordinating federal efforts on
invaders bluntly conceded the failures in its 2001 management
plan: ‘‘No comprehensive national system is in place for
detecting and responding to incipient invasions,"
according to the National Invasive Species Council.
‘‘Unfortunately, inadequate planning, jurisdictional
issues, insufficient resources and authorities, limited
technology, and other factors often hamper early detection
and rapid response in many locations."
While some progress has been made, especially in sharing
information among federal officials, the council’s executive
director acknowledged that many objectives set in the
group’s 2001 plan have not been met.
‘‘We have missed a number of these deadlines because
of staffing and other priorities," Lori Williams
The council, created in a 1999 executive order by President
Clinton, has six full-time workers, including Williams.
The staff’s challenges exceed those that David faced
against Goliath, said U.S. Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, a Maryland
‘‘They’re David’s younger brother, without the sling."
The full council of 11 federal-department representatives
meets three or four times a year, as does its advisory
committee of more than two dozen experts from universities,
industry and state government.
The council ‘‘can’t regulate, can’t pass bills,"
Gilchrest said. ‘‘They’re just out there collecting information,
and that’s good. I don’t blame them. I wish they used
the bully pulpit more."
The onus rests with Congress, he said.
‘‘We’re the ones who make policy. We need to tap into
Ten years after she led a landmark study for Congress
on invaders, Phyllis Windle sees few victories and countless
‘‘My main concern is that overall, U.S. policy is really
not much stronger than it was 10 years ago," said
Windle, a senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned
Scientists, a Washington-based research and lobbying group.
‘‘Bad policy perfectly coordinated is no improvement,"
Windle said. ‘‘We’ve seen a tremendous amount of new activity
but not much progress.
‘‘It’s one of my great frustrations that we’re still
in the same boat," she said. ‘‘Many of the gaps we
noted (in the 1993 report) in both the underlying legal
authority and the way policies are implemented and enforced,
those gaps are still there. Only a few have been changed
in the intervening decade."
Among the gaps:
Foreign ships continue to dump ballast water, sediment
and aquatic life into U.S. harbors. Even on the Great
Lakes, where foreign ships are required to have exchanged
pumpable ballast water in the open sea before entering
the St. Lawrence Seaway, at least four significant new
invaders have been detected since the rules took effect
a decade ago.
Proposals to require foreign ships to treat ballast water
before dumping it are being debated but, even if they’re
approved, would not take effect for at least five years.
Only 2 percent of all cargo that enters the United States
is inspected. The prevalence of cheap wood-packing material
enables insects such as the emerald ash borer, an Asian
bug that’s killed more than 6 million ash trees in the
Detroit area, to ride to America on a foreign ship.
Plants, flowers, trees and other horticultural items from
overseas are checked for insects and other pests but not
for their own potential to become invasive.
Anyone can order invasive plants on the Internet and have
seeds or plants delivered to a home or workplace.
No effective monitoring program exists to detect destructive
foreign pests early so that a rapid response might limit
‘‘Without such a system, obstacles to rapid response
are less likely to be addressed, and invasive species
will continue to fall through the cracks," said a
July 2001 report from the General Accounting Office.
Sam Speck, director of the Ohio Department of Natural
Resources, said Congress should move aggressively.
‘‘The federal government and the Congress have been slow
to address this problem," said Speck, chairman of
the Great Lakes Commission, an advisory group of U.S.
and Canadian officials.
‘‘They can’t even get their act together to pass a reauthorization
of the Invasive Species Act, and frankly that is very
Several bills dealing with invasive pests are stalled
in House and Senate committees. Among other changes, the
bills would require ballast-water exchange for foreign
ships entering any U.S. port, set up a screening procedure
for new exotic species in the pet trade, and allocate
up to $170 million for prevention, control and research
involving aquatic invaders.
Experts in both Canada and the United States fear the
devastation that Asian carp would bring if they reach
‘‘Basically, our lakes over the long haul would become
a single-fish ecosystem," Schornack said. ‘‘It’s
like a science-fiction novel."
The best weapon is an electrified cable resting 25 feet
across the bottom of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal,
a man-made waterway that connects the Illinois River through
the Des Plaines River in Chicago to Lake Michigan.
The canal had become a revolving door for invasive pests,
which can spread between the Great Lakes and Mississippi
To try to close that door, officials energized the barrier
near Romeoville, Ill., in April 2002. But the $1.25 million
barrier has a life span of just three years, after which
its cables are expected to be badly corroded.
The system shorted out in March, leaving the channel
unprotected for 25 hours. Officials don’t know whether
any Asian carp crossed.
Money for a second barrier, with a life span of 20 years,
is tied up in bills stalled in Congress. A 17-agency task
force hopes to complete the $7.5 million barrier in late
As a last resort, if Asian carp threaten to pass through
the first barrier, authorities plan to poison a 6-mile
stretch of the canal — killing everything in it at an
estimated cost of $750,000.
Despite the threat, Asian carp still do not show up on
the federal government’s list of banned ‘‘injurious species."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in mid-September said
it would begin studying bighead carp to determine whether
importing or moving the fish across state lines should
Bighead and other Asian carp are sold live in fish markets
in many U.S. and Canadian cities. Accidental or intentional
release into the Great Lakes or their tributaries could
allow them to spread.
Evaluating and publishing a rule about a dangerous foreign
pest typically takes 12 to 18 months. Currently, the Lacey
Act bans importation of 12 groups of mammals, four species
of birds, three families of fish, one crustacean, one
mollusk and one reptile.
Those numbers show just how little progress has been
made against destructive pests, said David Lodge, a biologist
at the University of Notre Dame and a member of the national
invasive-species advisory council.
‘‘People in this room could name a lot more that should
be on the list," Lodge told an International Joint
Commission conference in September in Ann Arbor, Mich.
‘‘In some cases, the tools are there, but they are not
being used effectively."