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Asian Carp Part I: Can Plundering for Profit Save Precious Waterways?

Mary Catherine O'Connor | Thursday January 28th, 2010 | 11 Comments

Is there anything sustainable about a business model focused on exploiting a resource until that resource is gone?

When considering, say, the mining of natural resources, of course you would say no. But what about using this approach to curtail the introduction of an invasive species that threatens not only one of the world’s most important ecosystems, but also major industries?

The invader in question here is the Asian carp. The ecosystem is the Great Lakes.

There are actually two specific species, the silver carp—these like to fly out of the water—and the larger, bighead carp. Catfish farmers in the southern US introduced these species to their ponds decades ago, hoping they’d filter out unwanted algea. This all worked fine until the ponds breached during flooding in the early 1990s and the carp found their way into rivers that feed into the Mississippi. Then they found their way into the Mississippi and started working their way north, toward the Great Lakes.

These are hungry, fecund creatures. It doesn’t take long for them to out-eat and overtake native species. If these fish enter the Great Lakes—which they are terribly close to doing, having been spotted just beyond the shipping canal that links Lake Michigan to the Mississippi—chances are, it would reap environmental and economic catastrophes. Goodbye, fish biodiversity (or what’s left of it, after decades of other invasives, including the European carp, have already had their way). Goodbye, sport and commercial fisheries. Hello, Asian carp.

Biologists have been calling for actions for many years, the powers that be are starting—thanks to a lawsuit and the threat of economic disaster—to take action. On Wednesday, politicians held a “carp summit” to start hashing out approaches to the problem, talking to reps from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and Great Lakes activists.

But as Jim Suhr with Associated Press reported last week, there are folks out there who look at the carp and see a business opportunity.

There are plenty of native species that have been completely terminated or pushed to the brink of extinction through over-fishing, so why wouldn’t these invasive carp suffer the same fate with the same approach?

Suhr talked to Mike Schafer of Schafer Fisheries,  a Northwest Illinois fish processor that is pulling in a million pounds of Asian carp each month. Suhr says a third of each fish is turned into a fillet, bound for export (carp isn’t generally found on US menus) and the rest is turned into fertilizer that is used, he notes, largely on California vegetable farms.

Schafer notes that over-fishing carp holds promise, as far as stemming its progress it the Great Lakes is concerned. “In the areas we’ve taken those large quantities out, we’re seeing a depletion of the species there.”

But it seems unlikely that Schafer—and other entrepreneurs, some of whom are looking for government grants to grow their over-fishing schemes—will be able to actually solve the problem. In fact, it seems like the Asian carp is more than likely to push up into the Great Lakes, starting with Lake Michigan. At that point, it will be a matter of trying to manage its population.

“Even if the fish develop a spawning population in the Great Lakes, there are things we can do to control them, as we already do with the sea lamprey,” Duane Chapman, a U.S. Geological Survey fisheries biologist, said at the carp summit. “But it won’t be cheap.”

In the end, the cost of dealing with the Asian carp, especially if doing so disrupts the shipping and fishing industries in the Great Lakes, will likely be much higher than what businesses stand to gain by exploiting them.

In Part II, we’ll consider the Asian carp in a greater context, looking at the impact other invasive species have had in the Great Lakes region.

In the meantime, feast your eyes on these jumpers:


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  • Aukman

    If these guys get in, it's likely to be the biggest (no pun intended) upset to the Great Lakes since the lampreys. No question that massive harvesting of the is a fine thing to do. At this point it's a new ecosystem and we're part of it, so we might as well make lemonade, so to speak. Thought I doubt they taste as good as lemonade.

  • Carptracker

    Bighead, not bullhead carp. And the carp escaped in the seventies, not the floods of the nineties. It is all over the media that the fish escaped in the 90s, but look at any scientific manuscript worth a hill of beans on the subject and you will see that they were abundant in the rivers of the USA prior to the floods of the 90s. It is important, because it gives a better picture of the rate of increase. It was not less than ten years tobecome so abundant. It was more like 25 years.

    • nickaster

      Carptracker, thanks for the clarification. Do you have links to any of those reports?

      • Carptracker

        Here is a good place to start for information on bighead and silver carp. This information has been reorganized, updated, and quite a bit more things added and published in a book by the American Fisheries Society. You can find the book fpr sale at http://www.fisheries.org. But for starters, here is the link.

        http://www.fws.gov/contaminants/OtherDocuments/

  • mcoc

    @carptracker thanks for the fix. I changed bullhead to bighead. I've not seen references to pre-90s escapes, tho, can you suggest a source?

    • Jim Reynolds

      Time: 1971. Place: Arkansas.

      Grass carp, Ctenopharyngodon idella or white amur, were imported from eastern Asia to Arkansas in 1963 to control submersed aquatic vegetation in aquaculture ponds. Escapement from these aquaculture facilities occurred soon after importation and grass carp in the wild were first documented in the Mississippi River along Illinois in 1971.

      Time: 1972. Place: Arkansas.

      Bighead carp, Hypophthalmichthys nobilis, native to the large rivers of eastern China, were first brought to the U.S. in 1972 by a private fish farmer in Arkansas to improve water quality and increase fish production in culture ponds. Bighead carp first began to appear in open public waters in the early 1980's, likely the result of escapement from culture facilities.

      Time: 1973. Place: Arkansas. (Is there a pattern here?)

      The silver carp Hypophthalmichthys molitrix is also native to the large rivers of eastern China and looks and acts very similar to the bighead carp. Like bighead carp, silver carp were imported into Arkansas in 1973 for use as phytoplankton control in culture ponds and as a potential food fish.

      Most of the foregoing information comes from the website of the Oklahoma Wildlife Department; check it out at http://www.wildlifedepartment.com/asiancarp.htm.

      My comments:

      The State of Arkansas sanctioned all of these importations and vigorously defended their position as an issue of State Rights even though it was obvious that interstate waters would be involved if the fish escaped (which they did in every case; it is impossible to contain an exotic wildlife import, sooner or later they will escape).

      Fortunately, the American Fisheries Society and federal agencies shined the light on this exercise of State Rights. UNfortunately, Arkansas had already exercised its “right” and the “horse was out of the barn”. We now have better oversight of State activities on importation but, even today, some state politician or outdoor “expert” will get a hare-brained scheme to import some new species as a booster scheme for the economy. And, for the record, the federal government is not blameless: among other species, we can thank the feds for the common carp to the US in the early 1900s. Nor is the angler pure white: each year some enlightened individuals decide that thhe know better and become a fisheries version of Johnny Appleseed, making “bait bucket introductions” (as professional fish biologists call them) because a favorite lake or stream “needs improvement”.

      Bottom Line: Species introductions always cost society more than their perceived benefits. Will we ever learn? I doubt it.

      • mcoc

        Jim, thanks for that thorough timeline! Maybe if there is one good result of the Asian carp making so much, it'll be more light shed on problems associated with invasive species and poor choices around introduction of those species, both in terms of flora and fauna…

    • Carptracker

      Jim has posted some accurate information, but you can find a complete history of what we know about importations and early collections in the provided link.

  • Carptracker

    Jim has posted some accurate information, but you can find a complete history of what we know about importations and early collections in the provided link.

  • mcoc

    Jim, thanks for that thorough timeline! Maybe if there is one good result of the Asian carp making so much, it'll be more light shed on problems associated with invasive species and poor choices around introduction of those species, both in terms of flora and fauna…

  • Louis

    Sad no one seems to think the huge, non-native, predatory salmon that are STOCKED in the great lakes have anything to do with decimated native species. What does everyone think they are eating? They don't think about it or don't talk about it because salmon make money. These carp will win no matter how much money they throw at it… don't forget someone is making that money!

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