Asian carp invasion of Great Lakes looms

While efforts are being made to stop the invasive species, are they enough? Only time will tell.
Chris Cinelli captains the sport fishing boat on Lake Erie with his two of his sons, Parker (left) and Connor (right).

Chris Cinelli captains the sport fishing boat on Lake Erie with his two of his sons, Parker (left) and Connor (right).     Credit: Justin Sondel

By Justin Sondel

Two boys stood at the end of a dock off the shore of Grand Island on a hot day last July casting fishing lines into the shallow water, time after time pulling up small rock bass from the edges of the Niagara River.

The boys are Parker and Connor Cinelli, two of Chris Cinelli’s sons. They are waiting for their dad to finish preparing his 2025 Lund Pro V, which Chris describes as the Cadillac of fishing boats, before they head out onto the largest freshwater system in the world for an afternoon of angling.

Chris, a professional fishing guide, has been bringing in bass, perch, and walleye out of these waters since he was a small boy himself. But the life-long Island resident fears that the fishing of the Buffalo-Niagara region may change drastically, if not for himself then for his sons.

Like many other fishermen making a living on the Great Lakes, Chris is keenly aware of a threat looming that has so far been held at bay. Bighead and silver carp—commonly referred to as Asian carp—have made their way up the Mississippi River and now swim the waters of the Chicago Area Waterway System, stopped from entering Lake Michigan by an electrified barrier. Ecologists say that the barrier, meant as a temporary solution from its inception, cannot hold the carp back from invading the Great Lakes system forever. For fishermen like Chris that means that the ecological landscape of the waters that have brought them sustenance and joy for most of their lives may be forever altered.

He said he knows the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and other groups are closely monitoring invasive species of all types.

“They’re always doing studies,” Chris said. “I see them out there every spring sanding their nets, checking everything.”

Other invasive species have been introduced into the lake system—zebra mussels, round goby—but none have caused as much concern as the threat of the “flying” carp.

“As far as the flying carp go, I think it’s just a waiting game,” Chris said. “They’re just waiting to see if they show up.”

Why a nuisance?

While there have been few live Asian carp found in the Great Lakes, the Department of Environmental Conservation did find carp DNA in soil from the shore of Lake Michigan late last summer. More recently, Notre Dame University’s Environmental Change Initiative discovered carp DNA along the shores of Lake Erie. This has made some biologists and fishermen fearful that the carp will soon be able to establish a sustained population.

The carp are considered a nuisance fish, undesirable both as food and as sport fish, though efforts have been made to market the fish a trendy delicacy in areas where it has taken over. They have overrun the fisheries they’ve invaded, eating the food supplies of the native fish and killing off huge populations. They have no natural predators in the Great Lakes, are voracious eaters, and multiply like rabbits. The silver and slimy looking marauders can be seen leaping from the water in huge schools. In some cases waterways are so overrun with the aquatic pests that boaters driving through a school of fish will have their boats inundated with the carp.

An Asian Carp, Credit: National Wildlife Federation

An Asian Carp, Credit: USFWS

Don Zelazny, the Great Lakes program coordinator for the DEC in Western New York, said that in the Mississippi River and its tributaries, the carp have become the predominant fish.

“They are really taking over the biomass,” Zelazny said. “They’ve basically forced out many of the native fish species.”

Zelazny and other DEC officials remain skeptical that the discovery of carp DNA in the lakes is definitive proof that carp have found their way into the lake system. He stressed that there is no reason to panic.

“There could be a lot of potential sources for the fish DNA that is getting into the various lakes without necessarily meaning that the fish are actually there,” Zelazny said.

The DNA could have come from fish-based fertilizers that washed into the lakes, from the excrement of humans who have eaten the fish, or from remains of dead carp at a fish market being washed into the storm sewers, among other potential sources, Zelazny said.

“That’s kind of a key distinction and key precaution that we need to keep in mind to make sure that we don’t cause some sort of mass hysteria,” he said.

Zelazny also said that biologists cannot be sure of how the carp will behave in the lakes. While they have decimated native fish populations in the Mississippi River system, there is no way to be certain of how the carp will react to the much bigger and more diverse ecosystem of the Great Lakes.

Most predictions have the carp finding their way to western Lake Erie and Lake Ontario 20 to 25 years after they begin to spawn in Lake Michigan.

“We don’t have any good data on what happens when carp take over a large lake body,” Zelazny said. “We know that the carp tend to spawn in fast-moving water. They like fast-moving, high-oxygenated water for spawning. The fishery biologists are not really sure how successful carp would be in Lake Erie.”

But a study out of Purdue University released in late March suggests that the carp may be adapting to the US waters in ways that could allow them to thrive in environments that were once thought to be unlivable for the fish.

Researchers found carp eggs much farther up the Wabash River in Indiana than was previously recorded, and in areas of the river thought to be too narrow and slow-moving for the fish to use as spawning waters.

Reuben Goforth, an assistant professor of forestry and natural resources at Purdue, was one of the researchers on the spawning study. He said that the study shows that the fish may be able to expand their range as they adapt to different conditions, though there is no immediate concern about the fish making its way up the Wabash and through the series of rivers, streams, ditches, and creeks that eventually lead into Lake Erie.

“We can’t completely discount any pathway, but I would consider it extremely unlikely that the carp could use that path,” Goforth said. “It might become more of a concern over time. That would require a lot of changes in their spawning ecology.”

Goforth stressed that the findings of the research say nothing conclusive about the carp’s ability to enter the Great Lakes somewhere other than the Chicago Area Waterway System.

“In terms of their natural movements, that is their most likely path,” Goforth said.

His research team has yet to see whether the eggs found upstream will produce fish that can survive into adulthood. But Goforth said he isn’t convinced that a hydrologic separation would keep the fish out.

“If we’re going to find established populations in the Great Lakes, it’s probably going to be more a result of human introductions,” Goforth said.

How’d they get here?

The government. Or Arkansas fish farmers. It depends who you ask.

The real answer can never be accurately pinpointed. So for argument’s sake, it’s best to say both parties bear some responsibility. Yes, southern fish farmers first brought the carp over in the 1970s to keep their catfish ponds clean. But shortly after that the federal government began experimenting with the fish, using them in sewage ponds as a substitute for cleansing chemicals. The government also experimented with canning the fish as a cheap substitute for tuna and encouraged farmers to raise the carp as food, to be distributed to people on federal assistance programs.

Flooding brought the fish from the ponds and lagoons into the Mississippi River watershed, with the carp likely being swept out of separated water systems and into the river. It may never be known whether the fish that made it into the river were from farmers’ ponds, government sewage lagoons or both. But at this point, does it really matter?

Legislative measures

The invasion of the carp could mean a loss of the region’s reputation for some of the best freshwater fishing in the world. For fishing guides like Cinelli and workers at commercial fisheries, it could mean an involuntary change in career.

The federal government has been aware of the Asian carp issue, and the larger issue of invasive species, for some time. The feds have for decades been funding control methods for other invaders, such as the leech-like sea lamprey that feed off the blood of sport fish.

Out of concern about the carp and other invasive species, the Great Lakes Mississippi River Interbasin Study, or GLMRIS, was born. The study, which is being conducted by the US Army Corps of Engineers, was compelled by language in the Water Resources Development Act, signed into law in 2007. The purpose of the study is to examine the patterns and effects that invasive species have on their host environments and to search for the best methods to control the invaders.

US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

Legislation sponsored by US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, part of the $105 billion transportation bill signed into law by President Barack Obama in July, compelled the Army Corps to submit a 90-day report to Congress and to finish the study a year early, by January 2014.

The most commonly discussed option is hydrologic separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Basin watersheds. The estimated cost of such a complicated engineering feat ranges between $3.2 billion and $9.5 billion, according to a study from the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative and Great Lakes Commission that explores three different options for the separation.

“It’s a real investment, but the reality is, this is hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage every year,” Gillibrand said.

Gillibrand argues that he massive upfront investment in the separation would be worth performing to ensure that carp and other invasive species can no longer wreak havoc on ecosystems, whether it be in the Great Lakes or in the Mississippi.

“The purpose of actually trying to cut them off from passing from body to body is it will save you money long-term,” Gillibrand said. “These kinds of prevention are more cost-efficient than what eradication would cost and the difficulty of successful eradication, not withstanding the damage that they cause before eradication. It’s much more difficult to catch them once they have already infested a new body of water.”

From an economic standpoint the damage to the outdoors industry could be substantial. Sport fishing is a $7 billion a year industry on the Great Lakes, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service.

Commercial fisheries pull about $22.5 million a year worth of fish, $5 million of which comes out of Lake Erie, from the waters each year, according to the Army Corps study.

“The biggest concern is the economic impact, that it will undermine our fishing industries and our tourism industries and the sound ecological nature of the lakes…again, people gravitate to the lakes because of their beauty, because of the health of these water bodies,” Gillibrand said. “If that was to deteriorate because of the invasion of Asian carp, it would undermine hundreds of millions of dollars in investments in both fishing industries and tourism industries.”

The opposition

There are a number of parties lobbying against a hydrologic separation project. Shipping businesses and unions say that such a project would significantly disrupt their ability to deliver for customers.

Lynn Muench

Lynn Muench

Lynn Muench is the senior vice president of regional advocacy for the American Waterways Operators, a trade organization that represents 350 companies—both in Washington and in state capitals—that move freight on rivers, the Great Lakes, and on the coasts. She said that the hydrologic separation would hurt businesses and drive up costs for consumers, and that it doesn’t guarantee that carp won’t end up in the Great Lakes.

“There are several companies in the towing industry that would be put out of business because that is their business, to tow barges from the lake to the rivers or back and forth,” Muench said.

While hydrologic separation could save jobs in the tourism and commercial fishing industries, it would cause thousands of jobs to be shed in the shipping industry, Muench said.

The Chicago Area Waterway System—the system of canals, tributaries, and rivers that ships pass through to get from the Mississipi to the Great Lakes and back—still sees significant shipping traffic, though the amount of cargo that passes through the system has been steadily declining. The total amount of cargo in tons that passes through fell from 24.6 million to 13.3 million—a drop of 46 percent—between 1994 and 2009, according to a document in the Corps study.

The industry and the American Waterways Operators have been working with the Corps for years trying to address the issue of invasive species and helped to fund the electric barrier in Chicago, Muench said.

“We have done everything that we can to help with the situation,” Muench said. “All the groups that are clamoring about this didn’t pay any attention until they thought it was a crisis.”

And the fence has been effective, Muench argues.

“There is no evidence that they are not working well,” Muench said. “This whole issue is very disappointing because it doesn’t have to be an either/or thing. There are ways to protect the environment and keep commerce moving and that’s our intent.”

Muench said that the most frustrating part about the argument for hydrologic separation is that there isn’t good evidence that it will keep invasive species from moving from one body of water to another. Humans—through recreational boating, food distribution, ignorance—can move invaders over land, circumventing the massively expensive engineering feat that would be the separation of the watersheds.

“It’s not going to work,” Muench said. “Things move from bodies of water to bodies of water without being connected. It happens all the time.”

The solution

The GLMRIS study has been expedited as part of Gillibrand’s rider on last year’s transportation bill. The bill has compelled the Corps to finish the GLMRIS report by January 2014 and allows the Corps to move forward with implementation studies if a solution is found that proves acceptable to John McHugh, the Secretary of the Army.

David Romano, a former program manager for GLMRIS, said in September that the Corps was continuing work at a faster pace with no additional resources, and would complete the study by the 2014 deadline.

However, in the 90-day report released in October, the Corps acknowledged that, with their limited resources, it may not have a satisfactory solution by the January 2014 deadline set by Congress, and may need to continue exploring control options if McHugh doesn’t approve the plans presented at that time.

Corps representatives said they remain confident that they will find a proper solution by the deadline.

“The Corps is lucky enough to have a real big, diverse group of engineers so we can draw from across the region,” Romano said. “We’ve got folks from eight different district offices.”

Romano and other Army Corps representatives emphasized that the hydrologic separation was not the only control method being explored as part of GLMRIS. Throughout the many studies on the GLMRIS website, it is repeatedly mentioned that the purpose of separating the two water basins is to stop the transfer of all invasive species from one system to the other. But their priorities remain clear: In the 90 Day Interim Report the only control option mentioned by name is hydrologic separation and the only species mentioned by name is Asian carp.

Michigan Rep. Dave Camp

Michigan Rep. Dave Camp

After the release of the 90-day report, Dave Camp, a Republican US congressman out of Michigan, released a statement chastising the Corps for leaving the possibility of further studies after the 18-month deadline set forth by Congress up in the air.

“As Asian carp draw closer to the Great Lakes every day, the Army Corps of Engineers has chosen to work even slower on developing a solution, in direct contravention to the law Congress passed earlier this year. This is unacceptable. The 700,000 people whose jobs depend on the Great Lakes fishery cannot continue to wait on the Corps. I plan to hold the Corps accountable for openly flouting the direction given to it by Congress,” Camp said in the release.

But the Corps argues that with no added funds from Congress, and no extra manpower, it is doing the best that it can to keep up with the accelerated schedule. Corps spokesperson Nicole Roach points out that the 90-day report does not say that the final analyses will not be done, but rather provides a truthful realization that with the resources available the study may not result in a satisfactory solution by January 014.

Gillibrand has kept up her efforts to help the Corps finish the study on time.

The senator introduced legislation that would allow the Corps to “take emergency measures in the event of an imminent threat of Asian carp and other aquatic nuisance species entering the Great Lakes,” that passed committee in late March.

Gillibrand expects the measure to soon go to the Senate floor.

Too long but not too late

Tom Marks has been monitoring the Asian carp threat for the better part of 12 years. A retired mechanical engineer who has fished Lake Erie and the Niagara River since he was a child, Marks now works as a fishing guide. He has been sounding the alarm on the threat of invasive species all the while, but he says that those calls to action have for too long fallen on deaf ears.

Tom Marks

Tom Marks

When Marks started what he describes as the “fight to save my lake” he tried to bring attention to the issue by supplying information to people he thought he might be able to rile up. He raised his concerns to the media and other fishermen, but no one got heated about it.

“I’d tell them about it and some would get excited, but not enough to make phone calls or write letters or other public pressures,” Marks said.

He briefly got the attention of some local politicians who heard his concerns years ago but never followed through with any legislation. Marks said that he watched as money flowed from Congress for the barrier while little else was done to address the threat.

“I blame all the politicians who did not hold the Army Corps responsible,” Marks said. “They would just keep supplying money without holding the Corps to deadlines or results.”

Marks said the electric barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Shipping Canal took the Corps much too long. He says that the Corps took more than a decade to complete a job that would have been done in months by a private company.

“If that was a job done by private industry, the project engineer would have been fired,” Marks said.

And after the electric barrier was in place, Congress stopped funding research toward a permanent solution to the invasive species problem, he said.

“The day they started constructing the electric barrier, they should have started discussing the designs for the next step, because you know you are going to go there,” Marks said. “But they never did that.”

Marks blames the many interested parties for the snail-like pace of the Corps in their efforts to stop the spread of carp and other invasive species. Consultants, engineering firms, and environmental groups made a great deal of money on the electric barrier project and stand to make a great deal more off of a hydrologic separation project, he said.

Chemical companies also stand to make a lot of money supplying control chemicals to state and federal governments if the carp were to establish populations in the lakes, Marks said. The US and Canadian governments spend about $30 million a year on control methods for invasive species in the Great Lakes watershed, around 90 percent of which goes toward killing the parasitic sea lamprey with chemicals, according to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, a binational group that studies and researches control methods for sea lamprey and other invasive species in the Great Lakes.

“So some company is going to make a chemical, forever, to kill Asian carp,” Marks said. “They’re never going to kill them all. You’re always going to have to treat.”

Marks remains committed to his mission despite the deep-seeded cynicism evidenced in his tone as he recalls the frustrations of his decade-long vigil.

“I’ve been fighting these battles for a while and I’m beginning to see it every time,” Marks said. “I think it’s more about how we can capitalize on this rather than solve the problem.”

‘This is what we do for a living’

Connor Cinelli fishes in Lake Erie with his father, Chris.  Credit: Justin Sondel

Connor Cinelli fishes in Lake Erie with his father, Chris.
Credit: Justin Sondel

Chris Cinelli, the fishing guide who has made his living on the Great Lakes, is still doing his thing, year round. Posted on his business’s Facebook page is evidence of the sort of fishing available in Western New York: photos, even in the dead of winter, of anglers from around the country proudly displaying huge sturgeons, steelheads, and perch caught in the lower river.

Chris says that in winter his customers come from even farther than they do in summer. This winter he has hosted groups from Texas, Maine, and New York City.

The fishery, the natural beauty of the gorge, and even the wildlife along the shores—Chris is particularly fascinated with the return of bald eagles to the area—make Western New York one of the greatest fishing destinations in the country, he says.

“I tell people, the only place you can go to get this kind of fishing that we’re doing right now is if you’re going up to Alaska,” Chris said.

While legislators legislate, the Army Corps and DEC investigate, and shipping interests lobby, Chris will continue to fish the same waters he has since he was a child. And, hopefully, one way or another, the carp will stay out of the lakes. If not, Chris would have to find a new line of work, he said.

“If something like them species come in it will hurt the whole environment, the whole economy,” Chris said. “It will kill me and a bunch of other guys. This is what we do for a living.”