The Carp Marches Ever Northward

David Cassuto

The Asian Carp continues its long march to the Great Lakes.  An invasive species that can reach 4 feet long and 100 lbs, which consumes up to 40% of its bodyweight daily, the carp will wreak havoc on the lakes’ ecosystem if and when it reaches there.  Currently, it’s in both the Mississippi and Illinois rivers and travelling northward.

This situation is generating both panic and inertia.  On the one hand are those who advocate severing all access points between the Mississippi basin and the lakes — arguing that the disastrous consequences of the carp’s reaching the lakes merit the drastic measures.  On the other are those who say that doing so would destroy jobs without guaranteeing that the carp will be prevented from reaching the lake.  It bears noting that the most recent carp find was only 6 miles from Lake Michigan.  This means that the fish may well have already reached the lake and that this may be an argument about locking the door behind the intruder.  

As with many invasive species (the Burmese Python, for example), the carp presents a serious management dilemma.  The Great Lakes ecosystem has been savaged and morphed many times.  For example, the lamprey eel , the zebra mussel, and the salmon are all alien species.  The lamprey and the zebra mussel came without invitation; the salmon were introduced to replace the lake trout that the lamprey decimated (my book, Cold Running River, on Michigan’s Pere Marquette River, which treats all of these themes, is lamentably out of print). 

The idea behind introducing the salmon was not so much maintaining the ecosystem as maintaining the sport-fishing industry.  The same concerns seem to be at the forefront of the carp dilemma.  I would like to suggest that the focus rather be on the fragility of the Great Lakes ecosystem, its vulnerability, and the ongoing threat from both human and invasive species.   

Now might be a good time to mention that there is no natural connection between the Mississippi and the Great Lakes.  It was a human engineering feat from the early 20th century.  Illinois reversed the flow of the Chicago River in order to flush its waste into the Mississippi River and to facilitate barge traffic from the Great Lakes.  Michigan didn’t like it then and doesn’ t like it now.  The Supreme Court recently declined to intervene in the carp matter by also declining to revisit the 1922 case  over the Chicago River (what it actually did was decline to grant an injunction).  It will eventually hear the case as part of a long and far-reaching history of SC litigation around this issue).

My point (and I do have one) is simple .  Let’s by all means deal with the threat from invasive species as part of a holistic management plan designed to minimize ecosystemic threats from humans and fish alike.   

The fishing industry brings $$, river commerce brings $$, and they appear to have conflicting interests.  How about the fact that both the fishing industry and river commerce cause significant problems to an ecosystem that holds 20% of the world’s fresh water? That reality seems well worth a ponder.


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