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‘Missile with Fins’ Aimed at Great Lakes

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This Asian carp is behind glass at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, but its brethren in the Illinois River are threatening to invade the Great Lakes.
Big fish with voracious appetite threatens drinking water and $7 billion fishing industry

In 1900, the city of Chicago had a problem: how to get rid of all the sewage it was dumping into Lake Michigan, which also provided the city's drinking water. The solution was to build the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to divert wastewater away from the lakes, a move that famously reversed the flow of the Chicago River and created the first and only canal connecting the Great Lakes with the Mississippi River.

And therein lies the problem. More than a century later, that canal threatens to deliver an even greater evil to the Great Lakes. It's so bad that officials temporarily poisoned the waters of the canal earlier this month, making it inhospitable to aquatic life -- with the support of environmentalists, no less.

Meanwhile, the federal government has ponied up millions of dollars to ward off this potential intruder, and the state of Michigan is preparing to sue neighboring Illinois to close the canal for good.

All because of a fish.

Not just any fish, though. This is the Asian carp, weighing in at up to 100 pounds, with an appetite so voracious that it out-eats most native fish and disrupts the food web wherever it goes. It has been working its way up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers for more than a decade now, making a name for itself by leaping out of the water and colliding with unsuspecting boaters.

It's been called a "missile with fins."

The fear is that the carp will transform the Great Lakes ecosystem into something unrecognizable. One need only look at infested sections of the Illinois River, where federal environmental officials say that carp now comprise nine out of every 10 pounds of living material -- plant or animal -- found in the water. An invasion could devastate the Great Lakes' $7 billion fishing industry and harm the drinking water supply relied on by 40 million people.

"Sooner or later, those carp are going to find a breeding home" in Lake Michigan, said Joel Brammeier, acting president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, a Chicago advocacy group. "And once that happens, there's going to be no stopping the Asian carp in the Great Lakes."

For many, this feels like déjà vu. Lake Michigan has been overrun by invasive species before -- most notably the zebra and quagga mussels. The mussels have filter-fed the lake to the point where its waters are remarkably clear. This allows sunlight to penetrate far deeper than before, which causes large algae blooms. Beyond altering the lake's ecosystem, this creates lush habitat for toxins such as E. coli.

Because the carp also filter feed -- up to 40 percent of their body weight daily -- there's concern that their arrival would speed this change along. Currently, invasive species in the Great Lakes are estimated to cost the region $200 million a year in lost commercial and recreational fishing revenue and in repairs to water-intake systems, which get clogged by invasive mussels.

A single, electrified barrier, nicknamed the "fish fence," is all that separates the carp-infested Illinois River from the lakes. If that barrier needs to be shut down for maintenance -- and occasionally, it does -- there's nothing to stop the intruders from making their way into the lakes.

So out of utter desperation, the canal was poisoned earlier this month while the fence was out of action. About 20 miles from Lake Michigan, a 5.5-mile stretch of water between the barrier and a lock leading into the lake was treated with rotenone, a fish poison, to kill any Asian carp lurking there -- along with any other varieties of native fish unlucky enough to be swimming nearby.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources said the state and federal agencies involved spent $3.1 million on the project. It estimates that the chemical killed about 200,000 pounds of fish, of which only one turned out to be an Asian carp.

Officials and environmentalists were relieved that large numbers of carp weren't found past the barrier -- but even just one proves that they're perilously close to the lake.

This wasn't the first sign that carp might have swum beyond the fence. The Army Corps of Engineers has been conducting DNA tests in the water past the barrier. Testing this fall showed snippets of Asian carp just eight miles from the lake.

It wasn't even a whole fish, just some biological material, but it was enough to raise the threat level -- especially when the fish fence needed to come down for maintenance this month. Many environmental groups, who normally wouldn't cheer a plan to dump poison into the water, supported the action.

"No one wants to see that," said Thom Cmar, a Chicago-based attorney with NRDC. But "the alternative is far worse."

The federal government agrees. This week, it announced that it would devote $13 million to fight the carp invasion. Most of the money will fund the Army Corps of Engineers, which is trying to cut off potential backdoor routes between the canal and the lake (such as heavy rains causing flooding that would sweep the fish into other waterways). The money will also be used to expand DNA testing as an early warning system.

As with most battles against invasive species, this situation is one of man's own making. The carp were imported to the South in the 1970s for aquaculture and wastewater treatment facilities. Their job was to keep retention ponds clean through their voracious appetites. But they escaped into the Mississippi River during flooding in the 90s and have been swimming steadily upstream ever since.

The only real solution to stopping the carp's spread, according to the state of Michigan and environmental groups, is to port a cork in the connection between the Mississippi and the Great Lakes built more than a century ago.

"The end point clearly needs to be biological separation," said Marc Gaden, spokesman for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission in Ann Arbor, Mich., which focuses on protecting the lakes' fishing industry. That means finding a way that commerce between the rivers and lakes could continue -- but with sufficient measures in place to ensure that one ecosystem couldn't contaminate the other.

A spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers said all options are being explored to determine the best way to fight the carp. But various local and federal agencies in change of the waterways have set no timeline to come up with a decision. Advocates are growing frustrated with the government's deliberations in the face of what they see as an immediate threat to the lakes and the region's quality of life.

"We've already had lots of time to look at the issues," wrote Henry Henderson, director of NRDC's Midwest office, in a recent blog post. "This has been a slow-motion tragedy that requires emergency action now to buy us the time we need to solve this problem effectively."

NRDC and other environmental groups want to see the locks on the canal closed as a first step toward stopping the current threat. The Michigan attorney general's office has already announced its intention to sue the Army Corps of Engineers, the state of Illinois, and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago to force the cutoff.

According to NRDC's Cmar, new technologies could end the city's reliance on the canal for its wastewater needs. But that still leaves the question of shipping; the canal has become an important conduit between the lakes and the Mississippi.

Cmar says the government could start creating intermodal facilities that would transfer cargo to trains or trucks, connecting the river with the rest of Chicago's vast transportation network while bypassing or greatly reducing the burden on the canal.

"It doesn't make sense for Chicago to still be relying on 19th century solutions," he said. Especially not when a 21st century invader is posing one of the most serious natural threats in the city's history.

Read more of OnEarth's Asian carp coverage.

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Emily Stone has worked as a science writer in Antarctica, a crime reporter in Vermont, and a freelance writer in her hometown of Chicago. She has written about glaciologists, murderers, professional logrollers and antique tractor lovers, and has also... READ MORE >

I find it deeply disturbing that an environmental organization would condone the war against the Asian Carp. It is simply wrong,not to mention entirely unscientific, to label an animal an "alien" or "invasive" on its own planet. Natural selection and migration make the spread of species inevitable. The goal of environmentalists should be to promote a peaceful relationship between humans and the earth, not to condone the killing and suffering of its inhabitants in deference to narrow commercial interests or entirely subjective human aesthetics.

It does not and should not matter what package a life comes wrapped in nor how it got to be where it is: what should matter is that all life on Earth be allowed to live without human harrassment. The inevitable forces which govern nature make the spread - and success - of certain species over others inevitable. It is how life on this planet works and always has, and it is a far gentler process than our futile and barbaric attempts to stymie the inevitable by causing pain and suffering - such as poisoning a lake, or electrocuting animals.

The Asian carp are not "missles with fins." They are just fish, who find themselves in that lake through no fault of their own, intend no harm, are simply living out their lives in accordance with their biology.The jingositic language above used to describe such peaceful creatures is both frightening and disturbing.

Invasion biology seeks to hold the world to a past mythical state that can never be acheived. Nor is there any compelling reason why it should be. It is we who must adapt to change, not the other way around. To seek otherwise is to propose a war against nature that can never be won, and sacrifices our own well-being and better natures as a result.

With your embrace of this troubling philosophy, which would be better named "biological xenophobia," you are undermining everything an environmental organization should be working to achieve: the creation of a world in which humans live in a peaceful, harmonious relationship with Earth and the forces which govern it.

The asian carp actually happen to be an EXTREMELY invasive species. They literally eat everything. The great lakes are beautiful, and if the asian carp get into the lakes, they will be no more. So you wanting to preserve the environment by saying dont kill something that is a part of our earth and just let them in, is absolutely obsurd.

Your naively pacifist stance conveniently ignores the 1. human responsibility for disruption of delicate ecosystems and 2. the ramification of such disruption on the largest fresh water resource on the planet.
Get off the pipe man!

Thanks Tom!

thanks nathan!!trll

how does a industriolize city let it self caught up in 19th centuary methods. it just stupid. my opinion here is that chicago 1st must reduce it pollution on water,2nd(in hurry) it should try to fix this problem... before the nightmare happens... just like before this fish might just get lucky to be carry by any flood that might accurently happen in future...also what kind of method is to kill tons of fish and only one carp!!

In Florida in the 1940's a little fly that layed it's eggs on any small spot of blood on an animal invaded Florida and threatened to wipe out the live stock industry because the maggots eat the animal alive unless treated quickly. Research found that a dose of radiation made the male fly starel and the female only mates once so the screworm fly was wiped out by releasing plane loads of the radiated male flys. Has anybody thought of trying to come up with a way to make these fish or for that matter any invasive form starel.

Tom, you may think you are an environmentalist, but you profess the same violence toward the planet and its inhabitants that polluters do. And you'll eventually disown it because it is not compassionate, nor scientific. You are a biological xenophobe!

Thank you Emily Stone for your succinct and timely article regarding the Asian carp. Nicely researched, organized and presented. Keep it up. I’ll do what I can in Wisconsin. Cheers, Tom.

Doesn't shipping commerce far outweigh the stated $7 billion fishing industry? If so, the river will never be corked. And why waste so much time and money on a fight we'll probably lose anyway? Even with initial success, fish may be unwittingly transferred to the lake, or a person may stock the lake with carp as a prank, thwarting the whole effort at the expense of taxpayers and the city of Chicago. We should be looking for the best way to adapt to the new reality rather than ruining our cities and waterways for the sake of nostalgia.
The whole idea of Michigan suing is ludicrous as well. Should Colorado sue Montana when a Russian Elk threatens to expand it's range across state borders?
If these carp really are 'missiles with fins', shouldn't they provide some awesome sport fishing? Posing no catch limits and requiring no license to fish for carp would help reduce their numbers, as would making them a delicacy or health supplement: carp fin soup! People would hunt these fish to extinction in no time!

As Agent Smith on The Matrix said, human beings are a desease and problems like the Asian Carp, Rats, Zebra Mussels and other non native species are here because of us. If we don't do something they'll endanger and possibly cause extinction in native species not found anywhere else that many of us appreciate. We must all pitch in to solve these problems before it's to late and stop being a ravaging desease and show respect for our planet. It's our home, it's what keeps us alive. We must stop acting like a raveging desease showing Earth respect and cleaning up the messes we've made.

I think Riley needs to come take a boat ride on the Illinois River..bring a helmet

well first of all its true how the asian carp are gonna screw up the greatlakes ecosystem but why spend billions of dollars on the stop of the fish. As for me i say "let them come" because as the avid outdoorsman i think itd be fun as hell to shoot them or just hit them with bats. and then just ship them bat to china they will eat them.

why trow money at the problem all there doing is wasting money on the poisons trying to stop the carp but they are killing all the otter fish they want they should try to corner the fish whit net or any thing else then use the posing just on the group of fish don't gust drop the poises any were you want that is gust my opingin
o just for rile there tiring to stop the fish because there super eater and water porringers to the great lakes support 40mill people for drinking water so that is why

I personally wish that foreign species of any kind that could become established and threaten native species were banned for any purpose. I'm only 55 years old and yet I remember many small rivers in Illinois and Oklahoma full of smallmouth bass, catfish, crappie, sunfish and the likes. Today those waters are full of European carp and little else. Non native species that have absolutely no purpose or mission except to destroy native areas are of no use whatsoever. You can take this romantic "live and let live" theory but some day your very existance will threatened by one invader or another and noone will listen as you call for help. It is often said that America is just changing....obviously not for the better. Any effort to STOP this fish will fail....some might SLOW its progress but it's far too late to STOP it.

doubt it bro.

If I were a burglar Rileys' house would be on the top of my list as he would just sit there an let me take anything I wanted, and would probably even help carry it out.

All the arguing and smart assed comments in the world are not going to change the fact that if anyone tries to shut down these waterways the first thing that is going to happen is that some unnamed individuals are going to round up about 500 lbs of egg laiden females and set them loose in the lake to make closing the waterways a moot point.

I think history has shown that Chicago businessmen do not like outside influences dictating their business to them.

Furthermore the "DNA" or "snippets" that have been found North of the barrier were probably nothing more than the crap of a duck or goose that had eaten some carp eggs South of the Barrier and then flew North to relieve themselves.
And finally if the surrounding Great Lakes states such as Michigan did get their way in closing the waterways this would still not stop the spread of the asian carp through waterfoul propagation.
All it would take is one duck to land in a bed of fertilized carp eggs South of the barrier and then fly to the lake for a swim and a good bath.
This would wash the fertile eggs right out of his feathers into the lake.

So maybe the right thing to do instead of taking extreme measures such as closing vital industrial waterways would be to put a bounty on these carp and utilize fishermen that are currently out of work to effectivly fish the carp out of the waterways.
It is far to late for prevention. It is time to start thinking about control.

Fisherman in Lousiana have already started to fish for these carp and utilize them in a variety of ways.

These carp could be used for everything from animal feeds to women's makeup believe it or not.

Captain Mike Bolinger

I have been contacted by a reality TV show producer who wants to do a series on catching Asian carp. She wants to meet and film actual carp fishermen fishing for Asian carp, not talking heads. Please foward to me the name, address, phone number, email address of all Asian carp fishermen who actually catch the critters. If you would like to learn more about commercial carp fisheries, please go to Thanks, Jim Miller