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Great Lakes Article:

Law no barrier to invasive bighead carp
By Dan Egan
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
May 2, 2004

When the Army Corps of Engineers announced earlier this year that it couldn't find enough money to complete a $6 million carp-zapping barrier on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, Great Lakes politicians pounced.

At a congressional hearing in February, Michigan congressman Vernon J. Ehlers told John Paul Woodley Jr., assistant secretary of the U.S. Army for civil works, that his "head would be on a platter" if the food chain-destroying bighead carp make their way up the canal and into the Great Lakes.

The fish are believed to have escaped southern fish farms more than a decade ago and have since been migrating steadily up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers toward the Great Lakes.

The day after the hearing, all 21 members of the Illinois congressional delegation fired off a letter to Army Corps staff calling the decision not to fund the barrier "unacceptable."

Army Corps brass buckled under the pressure, and construction on a state-of-the-art invasive species "lock" on the Great Lakes' front door should begin this spring.

But what about the back door?

Dennis Schornack, President Bush's handpicked point-person for U.S.-Canadian Great Lakes issues, appeared before the Canadian Parliament's Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans in Ottawa last year with a special guest - a live bighead carp that he purchased just a few blocks away at a fish market. Bighead are popular food in some Asian cultures, and the worry is people will take the exceptionally fecund fish and drop them into a Great Lake instead of a fryer.

"Only my good conscience and knowledge - no rule, no regulation, no ordinance, no anything stops me from putting this live fish into the river," Schornack, the U.S. chairman of the International Joint Commission, a binational organization charged with helping to shape policy for U.S. and Canadian waterways, recalls telling the committee.

Ontario is working on a provincial law preventing the live sale of bighead, but it has yet to pass. Wisconsin tried to do the same thing earlier this year, and the legislation went nowhere. The Wisconsin bill also would have held anyone who releases a bighead liable for the environmental damage they inflict.

"I don't know why," says Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay), one of the bill's sponsors. "We have to have additional penalties for releases . . . if some of these things get in the lake system, it's devastating."

Wisconsin isn't alone in what some see as a lack of legal protections to keep the bighead and other troublesome carp species from slipping into the Great Lakes.

The city of Chicago blocked the sale of live bighead a year ago, but live ones are still legal in the rest of the state, says Marc Gaden, spokesman for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

A newspaper ad last fall, in fact, featured live bighead at the Food Harbor grocery store in Addison, Ill., for $1.29 a pound. Cheap. Especially considering what they could do to the Great Lakes' $4.7 billion recreational fishing industry.

A clerk at the fish counter at the Food Harbor recently said that his boss' policy is to kill the bighead before they leave the store's front door, but some want to rely on more than middle managers' policies to protect the Great Lakes - they want severe federal restrictions on the transport of the species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is mulling a move to list bighead as an "injurious species" under the Lacey Act. That would make it illegal to transport live bighead across state lines, but so far nothing has been done.

"It is mind-boggling that at a time when we are working around the clock to keep these fish from swimming into the Great Lakes through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal that there is still the trade of these live organisms," saysGaden.

Conservationists say the stakes couldn't be higher.

"If these things get into the Great Lakes en masse, it will cause a biological meltdown," says Cameron Davis, executive director of the Lake Michigan Federation. "These things clean out ecosystems when they move into them."

They do it not by eating all the other fish. They do it by attacking the food chain at its most vulnerable point - the bottom.

Bighead eat the plankton that smaller fish need. That squeezes out the little fish, and that leaves big predatory fish such as lake trout and salmon with no little fish to eat. The damage to the ecosystem can happen in a matter of years, and the cold, fresh water of the Great Lakes is considered the ideal habitat for a species that importers brought over from Asia three decades ago to clean the bottoms of fish farm ponds.

If even a small breeding population of bighead makes it into the Great Lakes, Schornack says, "Then it's just a matter of time before we end up with a carp pond."

Loose in Lake Erie?
Wisconsin and Illinois do require permits to stock a fish species, but fears of illegal bighead carp releases are legitimate. Last summer, a 38-pound bighead was caught in Chicago's McKinley Park Lagoon, just a few miles from the Lake Michigan shoreline. The lagoon is not linked to Lake Michigan, and to date no bighead have been found in the lake.

Lake Erie is a different story.

Ontario biologists report that three bighead carp have been taken there to date, including a 3-foot-long one snagged in a fisherman's net on Oct. 16, 2000.

There is evidence more fish are swimming in the lake.

A doctor snorkeling in Lake Erie's main tributary in August 2003 identified two bighead carp lurking just off the riverbed, said Andy Cook, a biologist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. Cook takes the report seriously.

"He has seen this species in the Missouri River previously," he says.

The U.S. Geological Survey also reports that a fourth bighead was taken from Lake Erie in 2002.

Biologists insist that all this doesn't necessarily indicate a bighead population has established itself in the Great Lakes. They note that no juveniles have ever been caught,a promising sign that that carp aren't breeding.

Some believe the bighead are likely isolated creatures that were dropped into the 9,910-square-mile lake by people. Another theory is the Lake Erie bighead escaped during floods from area fish farms, which is how bighead first colonized the Mississippi River in the southern United States.

"We'd like to think that maybe there were only four, five or six in (the lake), but it's probably not reasonable to think they caught them all," says Phil Moy, fisheries specialist for the Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute. "But if you keep their numbers low enough, they may have a hard time finding each other to reproduce."

Schornack calls the Lake Erie catches "very, very disturbing."

"It's sort of like mice: If you see one, you've got 10. But I still have to rely on the scientific opinions that say there is not a reproducing (population)."

Dan Thomas, president of the Great Lakes Sport Fishing Council, says as long as the fish are sold alive, there will be a temptation to release them in open water.

"People have a propensity for wanting to be sympathetic to anything alive. We swerve our cars rather than hit a squirrel," he says.

And, at least some of us have a hard time killing fish, even when they are marketed as food.

Thomas points to the lunker caught last summer in the landlocked Chicago lagoon.

"It didn't swim there by itself," he says. "And it didn't fly in."

'Biological pollution'
Bighead carp were imported to the U.S. from Asia in the early 1970s by southern fish farmers, along with three other species that fall under the name Asian carp: grass carp, silver carp and black carp.

Those fish are cousins to the more common species of carp that found their way into the Great Lakes in the 1800s, but they are much more biologically menacing. Bighead, for example, can grow up to 100 pounds and consume nearly half their weight in plankton in a single day.

Bighead and silver carp are the species biologists fear the most. Bighead have been found in the Illinois River within 50 miles of the shores of Lake Michigan, and the only thing right now blocking them from the lake is a temporary electric barrier set up along the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which provides a man-made link between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River.

The barrier, about 30 miles southwest of Chicago's lakeshore, is actually 13 electrified cables strung along the bottom of the 25-foot-deep, 165-foot-wide canal. It is not designed to kill fish, but to simply turn them back.

But the electrified cables are corroding and could be useless within the year. Completion of the new barrier, scheduled for September, can't happen soon enough for conservationists and biologists alike.

Lake Michigan Federation's Davis savors his sliver view of the lake from his downtown Chicago office, but he knows even now loads of trouble lurk under its shimmering silver skin.

"From a pollution standpoint, we've cut the levels of PCBs and dioxins," he says, "but the biological pollution of invasive species has gotten worse."

The glacially carved lakes, the world's largest freshwater system, have been under biological assault since the early 1800s, when the Welland Canal opened the way for boats - and fish - to bypass Niagara Falls, which served as an impenetrable barrier to aquatic species invasions for thousands of years.

The lakes were isolated on the west by a "subcontinental divide," which separated the Great Lakes Basin from the Mississippi River Basin. That barrier fell more than 100 years ago when Chicagoans reversed the flow of the Chicago Riverand carved the canal to create an artificial link between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi basin.

Since the early 19th century, about 150 foreign species are believed to have colonized the lakes.

Among the most devastating is the sea lamprey, an eel-like creature that makes its living attaching itself to big fish and sucking blood.

By the 1950s, the Lake Michigan lamprey population exploded, resulting in the crash of Lake Michigan's lake trout population.

That, in turn, led to a surge in the alewife population, another invader from the Atlantic Ocean. With lake trout out the picture, the smaller alewives lost a major predator, and their numbers boomed in the 1950s and the 1960s.

Fisheries experts then introduced salmon to control the alewife population, and today the salmon are a featured species in a Great Lakes sports fishing industry that pulls in nearly $5 billion annually.

Lamprey numbers, meanwhile, are now controlled by the annual poisoning of their spawning beds in lake tributaries, a program that costs about $15 million a year. That program will have to go on forever because it is impossible to entirely eradicate the species. If the poisoning stops, biologists say, lamprey numbers will explode.

The lamprey knocked the lakes' natural predator-prey balance so out of whack that even today annual trout and salmon stocking is needed to keep the tip of the food chain from toppling.

More recent invasives include the zebra mussel as well as the round goby and ruffe, two smaller fish that could put further pressure on Lake Michigan's native yellow perch population, which the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources estimates has dropped off by about 90% since the 1980s.

All three species are believed to have colonized the Great Lakes via freighter ballast water, which is yet another door to invasive species that conservationists are looking to lock shut.

"The Great Lakes have been so destabilized by the repeated invasion of non-indigenous species that certainly many of my colleagues don't consider it to be a stable ecosystem," says David Reid, a research scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab. "Whenever you start achieving a stable situation, a new species gets introduced."


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