Courtesy Illinois Department of Natural Resources
A fisheries biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources holds a bighead carp caught in Lake Calumet during routine sampling efforts Tuesday. The fish weighed 20 pounds and measured 35 inches long.
A fisheries biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources holds a bighead carp caught in Lake Calumet during routine sampling efforts Tuesday. The fish weighed 20 pounds and measured 35 inches long. Courtesy Illinois Department of Natural Resources
A 20-pound Asian carp has been caught just 6 miles from Lake Michigan — beyond an electric barrier designed to keep the huge, invasive fish out of the Great Lakes. Now some groups are calling for dire action, saying government efforts at containment have failed.
Commercial fishermen working on behalf of state and federal agencies netted the 35-inch-long bighead in Chicago's Lake Calumet on Tuesday. It's the first physical specimen found in the Chicago waterways above the electric barriers. But officials said it is too soon to know whether it means an Asian carp invasion of nearby Lake Michigan is imminent.
Scientists say if Asian carp — with their large size, voracious appetite and prolific reproduction — become established in the Great Lakes, they could starve and crowd out native species and decimate the region's $7 billion fishing industry.
"We feel that we have to start to get some additional information about the significance of this population," said John Rogner, assistant director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, in a conference call with reporters announcing the Asian carp finding Wednesday. "What we're trying to determine now is, does this represent an individual fish in the lake or is it part of a larger population?"
'A Highway For Invasive Species'
Rogner says officials have no way of knowing yet how this particular fish got into Lake Calumet, whether it was dumped there by someone or swam upstream to the lake on its own.
But environmental groups say the finding shows that downstream barriers haven't worked, and more urgent action is needed to keep the invasive species from establishing in the Great Lakes.
"We have a significant problem with the Chicago waterway system being a highway for invasive species," says Henry Henderson, Midwest program manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Debate over that is fundamentally over, and I think it's time to focus on real solutions."
The primary solution he and others advocate is "disconnecting the Great Lakes from the Mississippi."
The Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds are not naturally connected. In the late 1800s, the city of Chicago dug a series of canals and reversed the flow of the Chicago River, so instead of naturally flowing into Lake Michigan, it now flows down toward the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, taking waste and sewage from the city away from the Chicago area's drinking water intakes in Lake Michigan.
It was an engineering marvel for its time and also created shipping channels for numerous commodities that are still vital for many Midwest businesses and industries today.
With Asian carp in recent years moving rapidly up the Illinois River toward the man-made waterways that could carry the fish into Lake Michigan, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has established a series of electric barriers on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, about 40 miles southwest of Chicago, to try to keep the invasive species out. The barriers shock the water with pulsating electricity in hopes of jolting approaching fish into turning back. A third electric barrier is expected to be completed later this year.
Ever since Asian carp DNA was detected in November, crews have also been electro-fishing and netting in the Chicago-area waterways that connect Lake Michigan with the Illinois River, in hopes of detecting the fish early. And that's how the single bighead Asian carp was netted Tuesday.
Lock Closure Proposed
Tuesday's finding prompted officials in Michigan to renew demands to shut down two of the shipping locks on Chicago waterways that could provide a path to Lake Michigan. The U.S. Supreme Court has twice rejected the state's request to order the locks closed, but state Attorney General Mike Cox said he was considering more legal action.
"Responsibility for this potential economic and ecological disaster rests solely with President Obama," Cox said. "He must take action immediately by ordering the locks closed and producing an emergency plan to stop Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan."
A Chicago-based industry coalition called Unlock Our Jobs said the discovery of a single carp did not justify closing the locks. Doing so would damage the region's economy and kill jobs without guaranteeing that carp would be unable to reach the lakes, spokesman Mark Biel said.
"A few isolated incidents of Asian carp in this small section of the Illinois Waterway does not mean existing barriers have failed," said Biel, also executive director of the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois. "Additional regulatory controls and river barriers should be explored before permanent lock closure is even considered."
Imported Algae-Fighters Run Amok
Originally imported to help control algae in fish farms and water treatment plants in the South, Asian carp made their way into Louisiana rivers, possibly during floods in the early 1990s, and spread quickly up the Mississippi River and its tributaries.
They're a huge and voracious fish, with no natural predators. Bigheads, known to grow up to 100 pounds, consume up to 40 percent of their body weight each day in plankton. Silvers, which regularly grow to 20 to 40 pounds, are known to jump high out of the water when startled by boat motors. Boaters and water-skiers have been seriously injured in run-ins with the massive carp, which have almost completely taken over parts of the Illinois River.
In recent years, Illinois officials have tried to encourage commercial fishing of Asian carp, and while there are some markets for the fish, it's been a tough sell.
Some Chicago chefs have tried to come up with tasty Asian carp recipes, but they say that while the fish is tasty, its unusual bone structure makes it costly and difficult to prepare.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report