A Bighead Asian carp has been found closer to Lake Michigan than ever before and it’s sure to rekindle raucous concerns and conflicting recommendations in the Great Lakes region that accounts for one-third of the nation’s recreational boating fleet.
The discovery of a 34.6-inch long, 19.6-pound bighead is the first found past an elaborate electric barriers system installed by the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent any Asian carp from getting into Lake Michigan and, subsequently, the rest of the Great Lakes system.
Both the bighead and silver Asian carp are the two most aggressive types of Asian carp, and thus cause the most concern. They escaped from Southern fish farms into the Mississippi River during 1990s flooding and have been migrating northward since. They’re voracious eaters that could literally destroy the $7 billion recreational fishery in the Great Lakes by consuming the native species prized by anglers. The carp can grow to 4-feet long and 100 pounds and they can consume up to 40 percent of their body weight every day. Moreover, when disturbed by a passing boat, they can literally jump into the boat! Now, fish jumping into your boat might sound pretty good – except the problem is people have reportedly been injured, even knocked out of the boat, by these leapers.
The carp has previously set off demands, including a failed lawsuit by the state of Michigan, to permanently close three locks in the Chicago area that lead to Lake Michigan, thus sealing off the carp from the lakes. But, an estimated 7,000 boats use the locks for transit to and from Chicago River boat yards, and hundreds more boaters lock thru annually to access the many marinas located along the Illinois Waterway that leads to the Mississippi.
It’s disappointing that the electrical barrier isn’t a 100 percent solution, although it is very effective. Calls for lock closings are bound to be heard again. But permanent closings would be overkill, unnecessarily putting boat yards and marinas out of business and cutting off the only waterway out of the western Great Lakes. What’s needed is a balanced approach now. For example, the Great Lakes Boating Federation has suggested “less-frequent use of the Chicago-area locks.” That certainly could be part of a balanced plan.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has done an excellent job of monitoring and dealing with the situation. Earlier this year, IDNR used a fish toxin, rotenone, to make certain no carp moved passed the electric barrier while it was turned off for mandatory maintenance. The measured use of toxin could be part of a balanced plan. Moreover, IDNR has used contract-fisherman for various carp-related monitoring programs. Increased use of such fisherman to net more heavily below the electric barrier could also be a piece of the balance plan.
The discovery of the bighead past the barrier is cause for alarm for all Great Lakes boaters, anglers, dealers and marinas. Everyone from environmental groups to fish biologists agrees very aggressive action is needed to insure the carp doesn’t reach Lake Michigan. A balanced, considered plan using the prevalent talents and resources is the right way – permanently closing Chicago’s locks isn’t.