Invader species threaten to further
shake lake's ecosystem
By Dan Egan
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published January 3rd, 2005
MILWAUKEE - The more Dan Thomas learns about the bighead
carp swimming toward the Great Lakes, the more the avid
salmon fisherman fears for the future of Lake Michigan.
The monstrous fish, brought from Asia to North America
by Southern fish farmers in the 1970s, are believed to
have escaped on floodwaters into the Mississippi River
more than a decade ago. They have been migrating north
Bighead and their cousins, silver carp, are now believed
to be within 50 miles of the Chicago shoreline.
The fish may share the same last name with common carp,
but that's about it.
Common carp, brought to North America in the 1800s by
Europeans who valued their firm white flesh, feed mostly
on tiny critters that dwell on lake and river bottoms.
They have prospered in the Great Lakes, but after more
than 100 years they haven't overwhelmed them.
Bighead and the slightly smaller silver carp are entirely
Bighead can grow bigger than an Olympic gymnast. They
don't have teeth and can't be caught by hook and line,
but they've got mouths so big and round they could gobble
a softball whole. The biggest can weigh more than 100
pounds and suck up to 40 pounds of plankton per day -
food upon which nearly all other fish species in the Great
Lakes directly or indirectly depend.
They've been called the 100-pound zebra mussel, and commercial
fishermen along stretches of the Illinois River that have
been infested by these "Asian carp" have one
simple message for Great Lakes lovers: Fear these fish.
In just a decade, bigheads and silver overwhelmed the
river to the point that today fishermen can find their
nets so thick with thrashing and gasping carp that they
sometimes can't even hoist them from the water.
"There is no way they can get rid of them without
destroying the river," says Gary Bahl, a part-time
commercial fisherman from Havana, Ill., on the Illinois
River. "They multiply so fast ... there's millions
and millions of them."
Few doubt these fish would thrive in the bays, harbors
and tributaries of the Great Lakes.
What worries salmon anglers such as Thomas most is a
map of the Asian carp's native range. Stretch the latitudinal
lines across the globe from Asia, says the president of
the Great Lakes Sport Fishing Council, and it is apparent
the fish are a perfect fit for the Great Lakes, the world's
largest freshwater system, and the biggest home these
big fish could ever hope to find.
"It just makes you want to cry," he says.
If bighead carp make their way into the lakes, says Dennis
Schornack, President Bush's handpicked person for U.S.-Canadian
Great Lakes issues, "then it is just a matter of
time before we end up with a carp pond."
The current tally of foreign invaders in the Great Lakes
is now at least 180, and that number grows each year.
Politicians like to bark about the need to slam the door
shut to Great Lakes invasive species, but their efforts
so far have been largely toothless.
Bighead and silver carp were proposed for listing as
an "injurious species" under the Lacey Act in
summer 2003. Such a move would make it illegal to transport
live fish across state lines. No decision has been made.
Meanwhile, legislation to require ocean freighters traveling
to the upper Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence Seaway's
Welland Canal to stop spilling ballast water contaminated
with foreign organisms was introduced in Congress in early
2003. It has gotten nowhere.
"We haven't done anything," says Gary Fahnenstiel,
a senior ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration. "It's all been rhetoric by politicians.
I'll be among the first scientists to say: Let's close
the Welland Canal. Let's start there. This is ridiculous."
Canada has been similarly slow in taking steps to protect
Schornack, for example, appeared before the Canadian
Parliament's Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans
in Ottawa in 2003 with a guest of dubious honor - a bighead
carp he purchased just a few blocks away at a fish market.
Bighead are a popular food in some Asian cultures, and
the worry is someone will buy their favorite fish and
drop it in open water instead of a fryer.
"Only my good conscience and knowledge - no rule,
no regulation, no ordinance, no anything stops me from
putting this . . . fish into the river," Schornack
told the committee.
Canada finally will adopt a national law early this year
that will ban the transport and possession of live bighead
With the U.S. federal government moving even more slowly,
the threat of store-bought carp infesting public waters
is real. In the summer of 2003 a 38-pound bighead was
caught in a man-made pond at a Chicago park just a few
miles from the shore of Lake Michigan. A year later, a
45-pounder was pulled from the same landlocked pond.
Great Lakes advocates who had to scramble to find $9
million to build a carp barrier on the Chicago Sanitary
and Ship Canal - which links the Illinois River with Lake
Michigan - are baffled as to why the government would
risk leaving wide open another door to invasions.
"It's clear-cut to me. It's clear-cut to all of
us working night and day to get the (carp) barrier built,"
says Marc Gaden, spokesman for the Great Lakes Fishery
Commission, which helps coordinate fishery management
decisions across the region. "If I sound incredulous,
it's because I am."
A likely reason for the holdup is political pressure
from the Southern fish-farming industry, which uses one
type of Asian carp to control parasite-carrying snails
in their fishery operations. Fish farmers also raise bighead
to sell to Asian fish markets in places such as Illinois
Mike Freeze, a fish farmer and vice chairman of the Arkansas
Game and Fish Commission, says the federal government
has to share some responsibility for the problem because
years ago it encouraged fish farmers to pursue Asian carp
as a crop.
"When these fish were brought into the U.S., they
were brought in with the full knowledge and assistance
of the federal government," he says.
Freeze contends that a federal injurious species listing
is unnecessary because states can act on their own to
block the importation of any species. But he says any
state that makes such a decision should at least give
fish farmers time to sell their current crops of carp.
Otherwise, Freeze says, a fish farmer may respond by dumping
the fish as cheaply as possible - into rivers and streams.
It's not something he condones, but it is something he
"When you back someone financially up against the
wall, sometimes they do things that they shouldn't do,
and that may not be legal," he says.
Scientists installed a temporary $1.5 million electric
barrier on the canal south of Chicago in April 2002 with
the hopes that it would buy time before a more permanent
fish-zapping device could be installed.
Asian carp have been found within 22 miles of the temporary
barrier, which itself is about 25 miles southwest of Lake
Michigan. The temporary barrier has already lost power
once, and the cables that pump the electrical current
into the water are starting to disintegrate. Scientists
predict it could be useless by spring.
The plan had been to construct a more powerful and durable
barrier last spring, but then the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
balked at orders to begin construction, saying it did
not have the funds for what was then a $6 million project.
At a congressional hearing last February, Michigan Congressman
Vernon J. Ehlers told the Corps' assistant secretary for
civil works that his "head would be on a platter"
if his agency didn't act to stop the carp migration.
The Corps hopped to it and found the money. A groundbreaking
ceremony replete with politicians in hard hats took place
last spring. Then the press left. Then ... nothing.
Construction costs had jumped by more than $2 million,
and the governors of the eight Great Lakes states declined
to help make up the shortfall.
"It is clearly a federal responsibility," said
Jessica Erickson, a spokeswoman for Wisconsin Gov. Jim
Doyle, co-chairman of the Council of Great Lakes Governors.
Yet the clock was ticking on the construction season
and quick federal funding wasn't there. Four months later,
in October, Congress came up with $1.8 million and the
Great Lakes governors agreed to find the remaining $600,000.
Now, with winter at hand and the temporary barrier steadily
disintegrating, construction workers' backs are against
the wall to get the job done before the temporary barrier
Cameron Davis, executive director of the Lake Michigan
Federation, can only shake his head. The stakes are so
high and the issue so clear, he says. The barrier funding
should have been a slam-dunk, not a close call.
"If we had a problem with this, it shows we're going
to need to get more serious about dealing with protection
measures that are even more complex," he says
Contaminated ballast water is just such a problem.
The water is carried in the bowels of cargo-less vessels
to keep them from bobbing like corks in open water.
The problem is ballast water is taken on in foreign freshwater
ports whose waters may be teeming with life. When the
ships arrive in the Great Lakes, that water is dumped
in exchange for payloads such as coal, grain and ore.
This is how zebra mussels are believed to have arrived
in the Great Lakes in the late '80s.
In response, the U.S. government in 1990 asked shippers
to voluntarily exchange their ballast water in the open
ocean for saltwater before arriving in the Great Lakes.
The theory is that the open ocean would contain fewer
critters, and those species that do get scooped up would
be saltwater organisms that would have trouble surviving
in the fresh water of the Great Lakes.
In 1993, the United States passed a law making such exchanges
But the ballast-water invasions haven't slowed.
The reason: an Edmund Fitzgerald-sized loophole in the
law. About nine out of 10 ships arriving from foreign
ports are laden with cargo and don't carry ballast water.
They are consequently exempt from the ballast exchange
However, those "empty" ballast tanks still
carry loads of sludge and permanent pools of residual
ballast water. Studies have shown that both harbor organisms.
The ships arrive and unload their cargo at their first
port of call in the Great Lakes. Then they're likely to
take on ballast water before steaming toward another Great
Lakes port to pick up more cargo.
Invasive species can jump when that water gets dumped
in exchange for cargo.
"The law as we know it today is not totally protecting
the Great Lakes from invaders," says Cornell University
biology professor Ed Mills.
"It's good that they're doing it (the ballast exchange
requirement), but it's not by any means reliable,"
says Allegra Cangelosi, senior policy analyst for the
Northeast-Midwest Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based
research organization that focuses on the Great Lakes
region's economic and environmental issues.
Cornell's Mills says, in fact, that new organisms colonize
the Great Lakes at a rate of about one every eight months.
Congress is mulling a bill calling for tougher regulations
that would close the ballast-water loophole by forcing
the sludge to be sterilized. The National Aquatic Invasive
Species Act also would provide funding to combat future
invasions, but action on it has been stalled for more
than a year.
The shipping industry acknowledges there is a ballast-water
problem, but some worry about the cost and effectiveness
of emerging technologies to sterilize the sludge.
France's Jean-Claude Sainlos of the United Nations' International
Maritime Organization told a group of invasive-species
experts at a meeting in Ireland earlier this fall that
more is at stake than just the environment. The IMO has
agreed to stiffen ballast-water regulations, but the new
rules, which must still be ratified by at least 30 nations,
won't kick in for existing ships until 2014 at the earliest.
Shipping, Sainlos reminded the group, is the world's
business, "carrying more than 90 percent of global
"As such, it underpins the continued economic development
of human society and is a vital force for the delivery
of improved living conditions through trade and commerce,"
he said at the Ireland conference. "This highlights
the need to balance environmental concerns with economic
considerations of world trade."
Others contend that in the case of invasive species,
environmental and economic concerns are one and the same.
"Are invasive species less dangerous than other
pollutants that foul our air or contaminate our water?
No." says Ehlers, a sponsor of the invasive species
legislation. "If we spend millions preventing aquatic
invasive species from entering our waters, we can avoid
spending billions trying to control and manage them once
they are here."
The zebra mussel illustrates Ehlers' point.
The freighter-borne invasion of the 1980s continues to
cost municipalities and industries that draw water from
the lakes millions to keep mussel-clogged pipelines clear.
The voracious filter feeders are also taking a toll on
native fish species in the lakes and have been linked
to an increase in dangerous algae blooms across the region
and to the noxious sludge buildup on beaches up and down
Wisconsin's Lake Michigan shoreline.
The General Accounting Office predicted in 2002 that
the cost of the invasion over the next decade could total
And it didn't have to happen.
In the early 1980s, the Canadian and U.S. governments
had "full and fair warning" that harmful creatures,
specifically zebra mussels, had the potential to invade
the Great Lakes via ballast water of Great Lakes freighters,
says Dave Dempsey, a former member of the Great Lakes
A 1981 report, commissioned by the Canadian government
to analyze the potential perils of ballast water, stated
that research "clearly indicate(s) that non-indigenous
and non-endemic aquatic species are being imported into
the Great Lakes system," and specifically points
to the pipe-clogging zebra mussels - which at the time
were plaguing Britain and Russia - as a species particularly
adept at surviving an ocean journey in a ship's ballast
Neither the Canadians nor the Americans opted to do anything
about the warning, says Dempsey, who documented the governments'
botch in his 2004 book "On the Brink - the Great
Lakes in the 21st Century."
"It's pretty apparent that pressure from shipping
and import lobbies outweighed any concern about a possible
threat," Dempsey says. "The burden is always
on the person who wants to protect something to show the
need for control, instead of the burden being on industry
to show its practices are safe. That's the whole problem
with Great Lakes management. ... We wait until harm is
demonstrated before we act."
Dempsey agrees with the scientists that it likely is
only a matter of time until the next zebra mussel arrives.
"It could happen again. I don't see that the government
has learned. Eighteen years after the zebra entered the
Great Lakes, we still have no effective ballast water
control," he says. "What does that say? It says
we can't even close the barn door after the horse gets
Conservationists predict public outrage, but worry that
it won't come until the lakes are too far gone.
"There has been no Cuyahoga River that has caught
on fire. There has been no Exxon Valdez oil spill. This
is a silent problem," says Jordan Lubetkin of the
National Wildlife Federation. "While the Great Lakes
have mounted comebacks from toxic pollutants and overfishing,
they're really facing their greatest threat yet."
Some see the stakes as higher than the international
controversy over pumping Great Lakes water to parched
areas outside the region.
"We're so worried about somebody taking a gallon
of water from the Great Lakes, but we'll pollute them
to the point that nobody wants that gallon," says
Fahnenstiel, the ecologist. "That's what we're going
to do with these invasive species."