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Carpocalypse now: can the US Army Corps contain the Great Lakes carp invasion?

MORE THAN A HUNDRED people stepped in from the cold as a fading winter sun set behind nearby office towers. Packing into the Cleveland Public Library's basement auditorium with me this snowy Thursday in January, I knew they, too, wanted answers. Maybe Marcy Kaptur, a fiery local Democratic congressperson, had them. She strode confidently to the microphone near the front of the stage.

"We don't really need another study or another delay, we need action," she thundered, spitting her frustration. "The Corps has done this region a disservice in failing to make a final and firm recommendation about the best course of action to prevent an Asian carp invasion in our lakes." The target of her frustration was an assemblage of White House officials and primly uniformed officers of the US Army Corps of Engineers. Ostensibly, they were here to help - or, more accurately, to listen.

The town hall-style meeting was set up to collect public comment on one of the great ecological threats facing North America. It was the third of 11 such meetings the Corps held throughout the Great Lakes region in early 2014, part of the larger Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study (GLMRIS) the Corps was conducting. This monumental engineering and public consultation project was designed to discuss ways to end Asian carp's four-decade-long northern migration.

Kaptur was the eighth speaker to address officials. As she outlined her disappointments in tones both angry and exasperated after decades of struggle, the visiting officials began shifting their weight uncomfortably in stiff library chairs. The meeting had barely begun. We had another three hours to go.

Earlier that day I packed a bag and my passport and set out for a rust belt city I'd never been to before. The five-hour drive along the Queen's and Interstate highways from Toronto zigzagged an elaborate "S" shape around two Great Lakes and across an international border to deposit me in Ohio's Forest City in time for the event. To be honest, I hadn't figured out why I was going. A frantic week of calling sympathetic editors at newspapers pitching a story about a foreign invasive fish hadn't yielded a nibble.

Asian carp had overrun the Mississippi River and threatened to break into the Great Lakes via Chicago, risking the ecological health of these massive inland seas. Yet my editors weren't biting. Knowing the details of the town hall would find a home in a book I'm writing about Asian carp, I decided to go. My wife wasn't due back at work for another two weeks and offered to tag along, drawing the line at sitting through public consultations on an US$18-billion plan to keep an alien fish out of the Great Lakes.

Asian carp, a catch-all name for four species - bighead, silver, black and grass - were introduced to American research facilities and aquaculture ponds between 1963 and 1973. Grass carp are incredible at eating weeds that choke aquaculture ponds while bighead and silver are excellent filter feeders. They eat as they breathe, using fine combs on their gills to vacuum up suspended phyto-and zooplankton in the water. They also produce huge volumes of spawn that reach maturity quickly and can survive in Just about any conditions. This makes them highly efficient pond cleaners. It also makes them a terrifying invasive.

Not long after their introduction, they escaped into the wild. Some say it happened when flood waters rose in Arkansas while others believe they were accidentally released as baitfish by unknowing recreational fishers. But their US origins matter less than what happened next. Once in the wild, silver (Hypophthalmichthys molitnx) and bighead (H. nobilis) in particular seized advantage of the opportunity to significantly expand their new-found habitat. And quickly.

Bigheads were caught in the wild by 1981. In three decades, escaped silver spread to 23 adjacent states, moving north to South Dakota and Illinois, west to Texas and east to Florida through the Mississippi and other rivers large and small, conquering new habitats and destabilizing native fisheries by outeating and outbreeding other species unfortunate enough to share a river with them. Some estimates put the total biomass in the Mississippi River - the total volume of all living plant and animal matter - at around 97 per cent Asian carp. Concentrations of silver carp are higher in the Illinois River than anywhere else in the world.

The result has been ecological destruction with mounting environmental and economic consequences on a continental scale.

Well - not quite continental. At least not yet. In early January, the Corps released its 210-page GLMRIS report outlining eight possible short-and long-term blueprints for keeping Asian carp and other invasives from moving seamlessly between the basins. Everything from maintaining the status quo, boosting the number of electric fences and increasing the volume of pesticides released into the Chicago Canal is on the table. The most colossal proposal - to close the pathway between the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes by erecting a massive physical barrier (known as "hydrologic separation") - comes with an asking price of US$18-billion over 25 years.

Ottawa has recently shown signs of understanding the severity of the problem on its doorstep. In 2012, Canada launched its largest Asian carp control program to date, with $17.5-million earmarked over five years towards prevention, early detection, rapid response and, though they hope it never comes to this, management of an established population. The feds are currently reviewing the GLMRIS report. Recognizing the impact hydrologically separating the two basins could have on aquatic ecosystems, marine transportation and recreational fisheries in Canada, Ottawa believes they'll have a say in whatever final decision Washington makes.

But while the GLMRIS report and Canada's detection efforts are pieces of a broader management strategy, they're a far cry from what many Americans crave: a bricks and mortar fix. I was in Cleveland, I suppose, to see if we were finally talking about solutions.

Dave Wethington is a man in search of a plan. The affable civil engineer from the University of Iowa had been bouncing between Chicago and Washington within the Army Corps for more than a decade when I caught up with him at the Cleveland library to talk before the town hall began. Wethington is in his late thirties and, with his shaved head, narrow features and broad smile, he has become the public face of the Corps' efforts to halt the spread of Asian carp. He was appointed project lead in August 2009.

If Wethington has a preferred option for preventing Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes, he's not letting on. The report process was about collecting information from anyone - any cottager, barge captain or congressperson who has thoughts on how Asian carp should be stopped, he told me. Wethington sounds like Ira Glass from National Public Radio's This American Life with his measured and comforting tone.

Wethington's reasoned approach and calm, careful choice of words hints constantly at his technical background as an engineer. But you'd be wrong if you mistook his collected demeanour for indifference. Spend twenty minutes with him and it's clear that unlocking the riddle of how to stop Asian carp is more than simply another rung in the ladder of his career.

The report wasn't about evaluating consequences of possible Army Corps actions, according to Wethington. "We made a general assessment," he said as attendees began filtering into the auditorium. "It's largely unknown what a lot of these species may do, what kind of havoc or what kind of no-havoc-at-all they may wreak on the basin." And the timeline for the Hoover Dam-scale project to re-engineer the Chicago Area Waterways System is monumental, regardless of whether the undertaking comes in on time and budget, which mega-projects like this rarely do.

"Twenty-five years is a long time," Wethington admits. He knows the Corps has taken flak for its proposed quarter-century timeline. But adult populations of silver and bighead are more than 50 miles from Lake Michigan and 20 miles from electric barriers the Corps has erected, Wethington told me. "Reproducing populations are another 100 miles beyond that." The engineers have confidence to propose a two-and-a-half decade timeline because existing structural options (electric fences and netting costing $68-million, according to Corps estimates) are doing well enough.

But fences and netting raise their own concerns about whether young silver or bighead can pass undeterred through the barriers. Wethington himself says the electric fences are a good but imperfect obstacle. "Obviously it's a check," he said. But fish may still get through.

Many like congressperson Kaptur were irate the Corps opted not to favour one course of action in its report so much as toss the live grenade in Congress' lap. Yet the Corps was ultimately loath to make a recommendation because options are political. Options please some and infuriate others by meddling too much (or too little) in natural systems with unknown consequences, both for those ecosystems and industries dependent on them. It's as though no one wants to be blamed for choosing the wrong plan. What's more, Wethington said, it's Congress' job to allocate money and tell the Corps what to build. Regardless of what plan Congress endorses, there will be risk. Eighteen billion can't buy a foolproof plan. And physical barriers can be compromised in simple ways by dumping Asian carp as baitfish or releasing them in spiritual ceremonies. Flooding may also do the trick.

Meanwhile, a black market for live Asian carp persists in Canada, leading daring smugglers to risk jail time or massive fines to import them to restaurants in Toronto's Chinatown, especially in the run up to Chinese New Year. Along the way, a truck carrying the illegal wares could overturn on a highway overpass near dozens of rivers and creeks flowing into Lake Ontario, releasing the illicit fish into the wild. It's not so far-fetched: Ontario natural resource officers have practiced this theoretical code red before.

The point of the GLMRIS report and the whole public consultation process, I realized as my interview with Wethington wound up, was two-fold: the Corps wants to hear what the public thinks they should do to contain Asian carp, to be sure. But they also need to remind people of the risks they face in choosing between what are, and what can only be, imperfect solutions.

"We all have to agree on what the best path forward is and figure out how much risk we want to buy down," Wethington said, "and what is essentially good enough." But good enough is a tough sell with this crowd. A healthy portion of engineers are present at the town hall, men and women who approach a personal problem from a professional point-of-view. "We went from a standing stop to [putting] a man on the moon in ten [years] because we had the will to do it and we funded it," said engineer Edward Yandek of hydrologically separating the basins. "The question here is much the same."

Canada is only now getting serious about building its space program, as it were. In July 2014, Ottawa opened a $400,000 Asian carp science lab at the Centre for Inland Waters in Burlington, Ontario. It is headed by one of Canada's leading researchers in the field of aquatic invasives, biologist Becky Cudmore. Previously, water samples from Canadian rivers were shipped to a lab in Wisconsin to test for Asian carp environmental DNA (eDNA), a round trip of three weeks, Cudmore told me. With the facility opening in Burlington, results can be known inside three hours. This rapid response is critical should Asian carp eDNA appear in Canadian rivers when speedy reactions can mean the difference between close calls and game over. It's not just Ottawa getting involved. In November 2014, Ontario reintroduced the Invasive Species Act, legislation that will beef up enforcement and fines for those illegally transporting invasives. It will also make it easier for the province to navigate the 20 overlapping federal and provincial laws currently overseeing invasive species in Canada.

We also know from recent research it won't take many breeding pairs to launch a full-fledged invasion of the Great Lakes. A paper from University of Waterloo theoretical ecologist Kim Cuddington published in Biological Invasions (April 2014) found only 10 male and 10 female bighead or silver are needed in a lake basin with 10 or fewer spawning rivers to establish a self-sustaining population. Even accounting for scenarios, which could reduce their ability to reproduce quickly (fewer fish and more spawning rivers, for example, or individuals aged beyond peak sexual maturity), the likelihood of establishing a breeding population is between 75 and 100 per cent for most tested scenarios. All begin with 20 individual fish.

"I was surprised at how low the numbers were," Cuddington told me. She began the government-sponsored study when fisheries managers said hundreds of Asian carp would be needed to create a self-sustaining Great Lakes population. "I knew that wasn't right," she said. While a continuously leaky barrier between the basins is the worst-case scenario, the most troubling finding from her modelled scenarios is that a one-time breach (which could easily have happened already) is likely enough to supply the Great Lakes with the breeding pairs needed to set the invasion in motion. In effect, it may already be too late.

It was approaching the end of the night in Cleveland when Matt Stansberry, a soft-spoken 30-something angler from Brecksville, Ohio, walked to the microphone. I noticed Stansberry in his black t-shirt, blue jeans and red trucker cap standing near the back of the auditorium with another man earlier in the evening. In a room of older folks dressed in suits and ties or sensible hiking shoes and pants that zip off at the knees, Stansberry and his companion stuck out.

"I'm obviously an advocate for complete separation from the Mississippi watershed, whatever the most effective means is," he told the Corps. Stansberry didn't seem like a guy used to the spotlight. He identified the man he came with as his older brother, another of the Stansberry clan making a living on the water as a Lake Erie tour guide. I wondered what stirred Stansberry to drive to Cleveland that night, what change he'd seen on the water since growing up nearby that moved him to action.

"I've never been so proud to be sitting in any kind of public thing," he said with mounting enthusiasm. With or without the Corps, the people are going to summon the political will to deal with Asian carp, Matt told the crowd. "There are people like ... me who see the natural ecosystem and the wildlife here as irreplaceable," he said. "And if 95 per cent of the biomass in the Great Lakes are Asian carp, this place will literally be uninhabitable for people like me who are here and are part of the wildlife. This place will become uninhabitable," he concluded. "Thanks." Matt turned and walked back to his brother in the dark auditorium. Another speaker approached the microphone.

The town hall concluded with thanks and polite applause. Visiting dignitaries stuffed papers into leather satchels, trying to avoid becoming ensnared in the lengthy post-meeting conversations that routinely break out near the stage at any such event. Others began the arduous process of wrapping themselves in thick, still-damp winter coats, and prepared for the cold trip home.

On my way out I stopped John Goss, the White House Asian carp "czar," as he's been dubbed, to pick his brain on an issue I've struggled with. How deeply should Canada be involved in finding (and funding) solutions to Asian carp's northern passage? Eighteen billion is a huge sum of money, so does Canada have a moral obligation to pay up, given what it stands to gain from keeping Asian carp south of Chicago? Or is this someone else's problem?

Goss made a sound as much a cough as a laugh. "There are probably 32 states with a major stake in this, in addition to the Canadian provinces," Goss said. The issue isn't just whether Canadian governments should help pay, in other words, but whether Arizona, Oregon, Alaska or Florida should help finance solutions for an ecological disaster not of their making. People in Washington and key Great Lake state capitals are just beginning to tackle how these massive infrastructure projects should be financed, Goss said. But to the root of my question he was clear. "A moral responsibility [for Canada] to help pay is there," Goss said over the chatter from the crowd. "Officially, how do we structure that? I don't know," he laughed, "but we would appreciate help from Canada."

I walked out of the auditorium and into the cold. A light snow was falling on a deserted downtown. Older patrons I recognized from the town hall were zipping up jackets as they bustled onto the street in search of their faintly snow-topped cars. I began walking back to the hotel. First Energy Stadium, home of the NFL's Cleveland Browns, sat ominously on the Lake Erie shore ahead of me. The dark water beyond, barely visible through the snow that was falling heavier by the minute, was relying on the energies of people like Wethington and Goss and Kaptur, but also people like Matt Stansberry to keep it safe.

The deck is stacked against those fighting what often seems inevitable - a breeding population of Asian carp in the Great Lakes. But sitting in the basement of the Cleveland library listening to how people's lives are intertwined with the Great Lakes, the stories of childhoods on the water, the fears of leaving a degraded natural world for their grandchildren and the real urgency to get moving on a plan made it clear that Americans won't blithely accept this new invader. Asian carp have captured the attention of an angry citizenry. In the process, they've made a powerful enemy.

Invasive silver carp in Chain Lake, a backwater of the Illinois River, leap from the water in response to a passing motor boat.

(From left) Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine; GLMRIS Chicago Area Waterway System Project Manager Dave Wethington; US Army Corps of Engineers, Chicago District Commander Col. Frederic A. Drummond Jr.; and White House Council on Environmental Quality, Deputy Asian Carp Director Jim Bredin discuss the GLMRIS Report prior to the public meeting in Cleveland. Jan. 16, 2014.

"I've never been so proud to be sitting in any kind of public thing. There are people like ... me who see the natural ecosystem and the wildlife here as irreplaceable."

- Matt Stansberry

Andrew is an award-winning environmental writer based in Toronto and has been covering invasive species and Canadian environmental politics for A\J for two years. Visit for more of his work.

Get an update on the Carpocalypse and more on Ontario's Invasive Species Act.

                  Black Carp              Silver Carp

Scientifiv     Mylopharyngodon        Hypophthalmichthys
name           piceus                 molitrix

Average        60-120 cm              60-100 cm (24-39")
Length         (24-47")

Max Length     1.8 m (6')             1.4 m (55")

Max Weight     104 kg (24-47")        45 kg (99 lb)

Feeding        Feeds almost           Filter feeder, mostly
habits         exclusively on         of phytoplankton, but
               molluscs,              also zooplankton and
               including              detritus.

Interesting   Highly esteemed         Similar to bighead
facts         in China as one         carp, they have no
              of the four             stomach. Some species
              famous domestic         of blue-green algae
              fish, they fetch        can pass through their
              a high price as         gut unharmed, actually
              a food fish.            picking up nutrients
              Black carp are          while inside the fish,
              also widely             exacerbating algal
              cultivated for          blooms. They can also
              use in Chinese          injure boaters because
              medicine. They          of their habit of
              are often used          leaping from the water
              as a method for         in response to motors.
              controlling snails
              in aquaculture.

Introduction  1972 Considered         1973 Initially privately
date          a "contaminant" in      imported in Arkansas,
              imported grass carp     they were first found in
              stock. They were        natural waters in 1980,
              imported for use in     likely as the result of
              pest control in         accidental release from
              aquaculture. Released   several facilities.
              to the wild for the     Introduction in Florida
              first time in Missouri  likely occurred as
              in 1994 when            contamination of an
              floodwaters overcame    intentional grass carp
              aquaculture ponds       release for aquatic plant
              near the Lake of the    control.

                Grass Carp                Bighead Carp

Scientifiv    Ctenopharyngodon         Hypophthalmichthys
name          idella                   nobilis

Average       60-100 cm                60-82 cm (24-32")
Length        (24-39")

Max Length    1.4 m (55")              1.45 m (56")

Max Weight    40 kg (881b)             65 kg (143 lb)

Feeding       Primarily                Filter feeder. Often
habits        herbivorous,             used to maintain water
              but will also eat        quality at sewage
              detritus, insects        treatment plants and
              and other                in aquaculture.

Interesting   Often introduced         Similar to silver carp,
facts         for weed control         they have no stomach
              when bred as             and feed constantly.
              sterile triploid         Banned in Canada for
              versions. Wary,          sale or importation.
              they can be hard         Often they are still
              to catch, but are        sold illegally as a
              popular bow-hunting      food fish. Bighead are
              targets. They will       also a popular target
              eat canned corn and      for bowfishers.
              cherry tomatoes,
              often used as chum
              to attract the fish
              for sport fishing.

Introduction  1963 First imported      1972 Imported to
date          from Taiwan and          Arkansas, they were
              Malaysia for use in      discovered in open
              aquaculture in           waters in the early
              Alabama and Arkansas.    1980s, likely as the
              In 1966, they were       result of escapes from
              accidentally released    aquaculture facilities.
              from a US Fish &         They were also released
              Wildlife Service fish    in the same flooding
              farming experimental     event in 1994 that
              station in Arkansas.     released the black carp
                                       into the wild near the
                                       Lake of the Ozarks.

RELATED ARTICLE: Carp-Occupied Territories

THIS MAP DEPICTS small watersheds in the continental United States where four Asian carp species - bighead, grass, silver and black - are currently or have previously been found. While Asian carp have been known to exist in each of these watersheds, not all indicated populations are capable of reproduction. Sterile grass carp have been introduced in many areas for purposes of weed and pest control. Overlapping colours represent watersheds in which more than one species of Asian carp are present. Available data are inadequate to show the historical pattern of the species' spread, as the date of each observation does not necessarily coincide with the date of the carps' arrival in the watershed.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Invasive Four
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Title Annotation:ANDREW REEVES
Publication:Alternatives Journal
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1U3OH
Date:Sep 1, 2014
Previous Article:Citizen science for critical critters.
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