When 2015 ends, Asian carp will be 106 kilometres closer to Lake Michigan in the Illinois River than they were to start the year.
In response, one of the largest cooperative environmental endeavours ever undertaken in North America has begun. Not since control efforts began against sea lamprey in the 1950s have Canadian and U.S. resource officials, academics and politicians joined forces so fully on an environmental catastrophe. This united front is key to fighting a major risk to the Great Lakes ecosystem. Even more important, how the two countries fight Asian carp now will prove useful in determining how they manage other invasive threats in future.
The term ‘Asian carp’ actually refers to four species of related fish — grass, silver, bighead and black carp — originally from the Amur River region in China. All four species were intentionally imported to the U.S. between the early 1960s and the early 1980s to consume aquatic weeds choking irrigation canals, clean sewage lagoons and eat disease-carrying snails. After escaping into the wild, grass, silver and bighead carp (the three species most threatening to the Great Lakes) began moving north through the Mississippi watershed and towards Lake Michigan. Their insatiable appetites threaten to severely disrupt the Great Lakes food web and devastate local fisheries.
Research continues into control options, yet recent studies have cast doubt on the ability of electric fences and deterrents such as acoustic and carbon dioxide barriers to keep the invasive fish away from the Great Lakes. Meanwhile, the discovery of eight grass carp along Toronto’s waterfront this summer has solidified the belief that an established Asian carp population in the Great Lakes is inevitable.
Experts on both sides of the border are losing sleep over the presence of Asian carp. Despite the grim outlook, governments, universities and numerous stakeholders on both sides of the border have mobilized against the invasive fish.
Key to the enterprise is the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee. Formed in 2009 to oversee efforts to prevent Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes, the group has brought together 22 Canadian and U.S. agencies that span the entire Great Lakes watershed.
“We have a good working relationship amongst ourselves,” says committee chair Mike Weimer of the group’s collaboration. Weimer, a senior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, says the organization’s disparate players don’t agree on everything, but “we have a common goal since everyone wants to prevent the introduction of carp into the Great Lakes.”
The committee allocated more than $74 million in funding in 2015 from the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Coast Guard and the EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to 43 projects throughout the basin. Everything from communicating the dangers posed by Asian carp to constructing physical barriers on the Illinois River was covered.
John Goss, the former Asian carp “czar” appointed by President Barack Obama in September 2010, hasn’t seen this large a co-ordinated effort applied to any other North American environmental calamity in his lifetime. “It’s very unique,” he says. “I don’t think we have multi-jurisdictions in any other part of the country that put together coordinated plans” on par with those created by the committee.
In the U.S., halting Asian carp is a bipartisan initiative. The Defending Our Great Lakes Act, sponsored by Michigan Republican congresswoman Candice Miller, would speed up approval and use of river barriers southwest of Chicago. Twenty-four Democrats and Republicans from Minnesota to New York co-sponsored the bill. Also put forward this year is the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential candidate. This bill would give the coast guard two years to implement a plan to prevent aquatic invaders from arriving in North America through the ballast water of foreign ships. Twenty-five bipartisan co-sponsors signed the proposed legislation from states as disparate as Hawaii, Alaska, Texas and New Hampshire.
This cross-political goodwill isn’t confined to south of the border. In Ontario, the Liberal government’s Invasive Species Act received royal assent this month with some opposition support. The bill makes it easier for resource officials to halt invasives’ spread. With its passage, Ontario became Canada’s first province to possess stand-alone invasive species legislation, something Conservative Toby Barrett, agriculture critic and MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk called an “admirable accomplishment” before crediting the United States for taking action against Asian carp “that benefits all of us on this side of the border.”
Bringing dozens of regional players together has been no easy feat given their sometimes incompatible ideas for how Asian carp should be managed and the Great Lakes used. While some argue a permanent barrier should be installed to physically separate the Great Lakes from the Illinois River in Chicago, the shipping industry believes river access must remain open to encourage barge traffic.
“I think we’ve done a pretty good job of bringing the different parties together,” said David Ullrich, head of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. His organization, a coalition of 110 Canadian and U.S. mayors, realizes how important the Great Lakes are to the essence of those who live in the basin. “I think they view Asian carp as a potentially major threat to the Great Lakes as we know them,” Ullrich says of his member cities. They’ve witnessed the damage from sea lamprey, zebra mussels, round gobies and a host of other aquatic invasives in the past, he says. “The feeling is that the Asian carp could potentially do even more damage.”
If established in the Great Lakes, Asian carp would join 180-plus aquatic invasives already there. No one believes they’ll be the last. So while international collaboration on Asian carp is critical in the short-term, others are thinking long-term about how the example set by co-operative Asian carp work can be used to protect the Lakes from yet-unknown threats.
Canadian and U.S. federal officials routinely meet with state and provincial natural resource officials to swap stories, gear recommendations and monitoring techniques. “We’re in the field together — that’s the jewel in all of this,” said Kevin Irons, head of Asian carp work for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
State and federal agencies typically stay in their own lanes, Irons says; they rarely deviate to see what other organizations are doing on a similar topic. But when the Asian carp problem ballooned from an American Midwest concern to an international priority, it forced officials to operate outside their traditional silos.
“We have our expertise growing amongst the region as we start seeing more talk about invasive species,” Irons said. “It’s not carp-centric necessarily — we’re building beyond carp.”
Andrew Reeves is a Toronto-based freelance environmental journalist who is working on a book about Asian carp.
Image credit: T. Lawrence, Great Lakes Fishery Commission
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