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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Damned if We Do/Don’t on Asian Carp

January 10, 2014 By John Van Hecke, Publisher

Without considerable federal investment, Asian carp, an invasive, non-native fish, will reach and populate the Great Lakes. Even with that $18 billion projected effort, Asian carp will still likely reach and populate the Great Lakes. Apart from putting a price tag on options, a new report tells us absolutely nothing that we don’t already know. As tempting as it is to jeer, “I told you so,” taunting gains absolutely nothing and delays effective policy implementation. The Asian carp experience continue teaching us critical public policy lessons if we’re smart enough to listen.

A new study from the US Army Corps of Engineers details the Asian Carp’s barely hindered advance into the Mississippi River basin and the Great Lakes chain from southern locales, lists preventative options and puts a price on the project. It isn’t going to easy, cheap or even effective. The moment for serious interdiction efforts happened decades ago. We collectively chose to ignore or disregard warnings. Today, the best case scenario, absent new, undiscovered technology’s application, is slowing the Asian carp’s northern migration.

The Army Corps’ report uses the term “aquatic nuisance species.” They’re talking about the Asian carp, a particularly aggressive fish that disrupts native ecosystems, causing a breakdown in complex landscape and waterscape relationships. If you like fishing Midwestern lakes and rivers, for example, chances are excellent that the Asian carp will change your fishing experience and reduce your catch.

One solution is to fish Asian carp. They’re not the same as eating Perch, Sunnies, Walleye or lake trout but the Asian carp has its adherents. Of course, there’s the whole problem of seemingly crazed silver carp leaping into your boat and gashing your arm, possibly causing you to drop your fishing pole in the river. Not to mention the increased mercury ingestion risk that accompanies dining on any bottom feeder. But, hardcore fishermen rise to any fishing opportunity.

In Asia, carp are a reliable, popular menu item. The smart commercial fisherman should see the market opportunity. Just because Asian carp species are rough fish doesn’t mean that they taste bad or are difficult to prepare. Here’s a recipe to try, Sichuan Crispy Fried Carp. Scaling up, a commercial carp fishing and processing company is opening a facility just south of the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. They plan to ship and sell Asian carp to Asia. This is an interesting start but it won’t arrest ANS’ northern push.

The fishing-as-population-control strategy will barely have an impact on ANS populations. Their eventual domination will permanently alter the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Basin ecosystems. Bighead and silver carp are slowly working their up the Mississippi and feeder rivers. First imported by southern states’ commercial fish pond farmers as an algae control solution, Asian carp species escaped into the adjacent rivers during flooding. In the past 30-40 years they’ve moved north, including swimming up the Illinois River to within 55 miles of Chicago and Lake Michigan. Even with an electronic fence, fish researchers conclude that Asian carp will reach and populate Lake Michigan within a decade. At that point, this newest ANS will establish Great Lakes-wide population dominance.

Commercial fishing on Lake Superior is mounting a comeback after near native-species collapse in the mid-20th century from rapid stock depletion and invasive, non-native species. Long term sustainability plans and practices have restored commercial fishing, bringing ciscoes, lake trout and whitefish to Minnesota tables while creating jobs. It’s an example of smart, balanced public fisheries policy. An expanding Asian carp population threatens this achievement.

Not every non-native species is disruptive so we have to be careful about overreacting. Pheasants are Asian and now populate the world. They do so well in prairie lands that South Dakota’s state bird is the pheasant. Apples first emerged in Central Asia. Moving the other direction, New World plants like corn, tomatoes, potatoes and peppers, revolutionized European, African and Asian cooking.

To preserve Minnesota’s precious native fish habitat, we first need to stop thinking of rivers as big canals for floating cargo barges from point A to point B. Yes, lake and river shipping is absolutely critical to Minnesota’s economy but it’s a shared space activity. Extend that attitude to every water body. We may not eliminate Asian carp from the Upper Mississippi but we can slow and stop their spread into smaller rivers and lakes by physical barriers. Applying zebra mussel mitigation lessons, end-point users – fishermen, boaters, sailors – bear the heaviest responsibility for containment and non-transfer procedures but they also have the most to gain.

The best moment to mitigate invasive aquatic species’ impact was decades in the past. We should’ve never permitted Asian carp’s introduction in the first place. But, it happened and now we need to chart a path forward. As the Army Corps report reveals, there’s no certain, easy answer. Doing nothing guarantees ANS spread. Doing something arguably only delays the inevitable. What we observe is the high cost of poor past choices. Let’s craft policy that keeps our remaining uninfected waterways dedicated to native species and minimizes infested downriver impacts.

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