How a few Asian carp can hurt Great Lakes

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

As few as 10 Asian carp can wreak havoc on the ecosystem and the economy of the Great Lakes, according to research published in the Biological Invasions journal.

The abundance of algae and zooplankton in Lake Erie makes it a suitable spot for the invasive species, said University of Waterloo Professor Kim Cuddington, the lead researcher.

“Therefore the carp are more likely to find enough food, and to have faster development times, and thus early age at first reproduction,” she said Tuesday.

The concern is that Asian carp devour the same food supply of native fish without any known predators. Therefore, Asian carp can become the dominant fish and hurt the economy of the Great Lakes fishery industry by starving out native fish.

The invasive species has a presence in the Mississippi, Missouri, Maumee and Illinois rivers.

Just 10 of the fish can create a 50 percent probability that they will establish in the Great Lakes, the research concludes. The probability Asian carp gain a foothold on the Great Lakes reaches 75 percent if more than 20 of the fish enter any of the lakes. Cuddington said a single female can lay more than a million eggs in a year, which is how the species has dominated the Mississippi River.

Cuddington said it is inevitable that Asian carp will reach the lakes. Notre Dame University’s Environmental Change Initiative discovered carp DNA along the western shore of Lake Erie.

“They have been in the lakes — thus the inevitable arrival — but we have no evidence that there are established populations with successful spawning yet,” she said.

Cuddington said efforts to stop new arrivals must be continuous to prevent their spread.

“I like to draw an analogy to vaccination,” she said. “If we want to control disease, we have to continually immunize. Similar efforts to control the Asian carp invasion will be ongoing, unless we somehow eradicate it from North America. In other words, the establishment of a breeding population is only inevitable if we don’t make a concerted effort.”

For a local angle, read Justin Sondel’s in depth freelance article for Investigative Post that highlights the dangers of such an invasion and the efforts underway to protect the Great Lakes from the invasive species.