Asian Carp in the Mississippi River and Beyond: Ecological Piranhas

When people think about dangerous fish, they typically think of sharks, piranhas, killer whales and other predatory species. As it turns out, the seemingly innocuous Asian carp in the Mississippi River could be perceived to be a far greater threat than any of these other intimidating species. YouTube videos abound showing enormous Asian carps leaping up to 10 feet out of the water in the Illinois River, besieging boaters. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, “reported injuries include cuts from fins, black eyes, broken bones, back injuries, and concussions.”

Watch this amazing Asian carp jumping video:

The problems created by this non-native species are far more severe than a handful of injured boaters. The EPA describes Asian carp as large and extremely prolific. They also consume vast amounts of food. In an infested waterway, everything from fisheries, transportation, water supply, irrigation, recreation, and disease vector management can become disrupted by a nuisance species like the Asian carp.

Ironically, the species was first introduced to American waterways intentionally during the 1970‘s. Farmers originally utilized the fish to control and remove algae from local ponds and lakes. When these lakes and ponds overflowed their banks during the massive floods that occurred in the early 1990s, the Asian carp managed to make their way into the Mississippi River Basin, specifically the Illinois River where the Asian carp plague has now reached its peak. Upstream on the Illinois River, nearly nine out of every 10 fish is an Asian carp and the problem is no longer limited to the Illinois River alone. The fish have spread upstream into the Missouri and from there into tributaries across the entire Mississippi River Valley, advancing towards the Chicago shipping canal, making infestation of the Great Lakes appear imminent.

In hopes of preventing this, in 2004 the US Army Corps of Engineers, US EPA, the State of Illinois, the International Joint Commission, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service came together with what they hoped would be a permanent solution… an electric barrier that would prevent any fish from accessing the Chicago shipping canal. Seeing this project through to its completion cost a staggering $9.1 million dollars in 2004, the US House and Senate spending $6.825 million. The remaining funds were committed by the State of Illinois and the Great Lakes governors.

In 2010, it has been estimated that it will cost an additional $30 million to keep the carp from infesting the Great Lakes. Additionally, in 2009 when the electric barrier had to be deactivated for a time toxins were used to kill off any fish that might escape while the barrier was down. The fish kill cost nearly $3 million and produced 90 tons of dead fish. Sadly, all these efforts still might not be enough to save the Great Lakes from a carp invasion.

To the horror of these professional environmentalists and conservationists whose job it was to stop the habitat expansion of the Asian carp in the Mississippi river, in June of 2010 an Asian carp corpse was discovered near shore on Lake Calumet, just 6 miles downstream of Lake Michigan…proving for the first time that Asian carp have, indeed, managed to breach the electrical barriers.

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