Asian Carp: A Tale of Two Fish Poisonings
Today, the state and federal agencies who now refer to themselves as the “Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee” will, for the second time in the last six months, conduct a major poisoning operation in the Chicago Waterway System aimed at stopping Asian carp from establishing a breeding population in Lake Michigan and gathering further data about what fish are present in that stretch of the Waterway.
Asian carp DNA was found as recently as one month ago in a stretch of the Cal-Sag Channel downstream from the O’Brien Lock and Dam – one of the hotbeds of DNA test hits indicating that Asian carp are likely present. This prompted the agencies to take action.
The first major fish poisoning operation, last December, was the largest intentional poisoning of our waters in the history of the United States, covering over 6 miles of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. NRDC supported it as the lesser of two evils… because if Asian carp are allowed to establish themselves and spread throughout the Great Lakes, it could have catastrophic consequences for the ecosystem and all who depend on it.
Unfortunately, the December fish kill was also a huge missed opportunity. As many fish biologists pointed out at the time, any Asian carp that were killed likely sank – and the agencies did not use nets to collect the fish that sank to the bottom. It’s also not clear that the agencies carefully sorted through the fish that they did collect to identify how many bighead and silver Asian carp were present, including juvenile Asian carp that are difficult to distinguish from other fish to an untrained eye.
So although the agencies found only one Asian carp in the aftermath of that fish kill, we have no idea how representative the sample was that was taken – and thus how many Asian carp were actually present in the portion of the Waterway System at that time. This would have been extremely important data that could have allowed for further confirmation and refinement of environmental DNA testing as a tool for monitoring Asian carp.
This time, we are told by the agencies that they will be attempting to gather this data, setting up nets that they hope will collect close to 100% of the fish that will be killed by the rotenone application. I am hopeful that this will provide some genuinely useful data.
It is important to note, however, that this is extremely stale intelligence on which the agencies are acting: as far as we have been told, the latest DNA information indicating that Asian carp are present in portions of the Calumet River where the poisoning will take place are now a month old. Just because there were Asian carp there a month ago does not mean they sat still and did nothing in the meantime. Maybe some of the same fish are still there, but it is quite possible that the Asian carp that generated the positive DNA test results have long since moved on, perhaps even into Lake Michigan. So even if no Asian carp are found among the fish killed in the current rotenone operation, that will not prove a negative. It is dangerous to politicize science – and I fear that, no matter what the results of this week’s poisoning operations, there will be a rush to conclusions that over-interpret the available data.
Sadly, the agencies still seem to be bowing to the anti-science crowd who refuses to accept that the environmental DNA results are a legitimate basis upon which to act. The agencies have been doing this not only in some of their rhetoric, but also in their course of action. It has been troubling that, over the last several weeks, a lot of the agencies’ efforts have been directed toward trying to find Asian carp in the Chicago Waterway System by conventional fishing methods like netting and electro-shocking that, according to the scientists who know the Asian carp best, are not likely to actually find any of the invasive fish, even if they are present. Asian carp are simply too big and too elusive to be caught by conventional methods when they are present in low numbers – which is hopefully still the case. If it ever does get to the point where we are able to catch Asian carp with fishing nets or electro-shocking techniques, it would likely be too late to stop them – so while it is very good news that the agencies have not been able to catch Asian carp in those ways, it by no means that the threat is not real or even diminished.
It is time to work aggressively toward a real solution. Steps must be taken in the short-term to address the immediate threat posed by Asian carp to the Great Lakes, but we cannot allow this continuing food fight over how many Asian carp are present, and where, to distract from the need for a permanent, long-term solution. The Asian carp are really just the “poster child” for a much larger, long-term problem: infrastructure.
The problem of invasive species moving through the Chicago Waterway System is not just about the Asian carp – it is about a whole host that have for decades moved in both directions between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River, using the Chicago Waterway System as their highway. We need to fix the infrastructure in the Waterway System that exposes us to this risk of further economic and ecological harm. If done right, this would not only establish physical barriers that would ensure the protection of both the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds, but it would also improve the economy in Chicago and the entire region by making public investments in new infrastructure and bringing in new jobs. The New York Times recently published a thoughtful article describing the potential economic boon to Chicago and the region from permanently solving these infrastructure issues.
One of my favorite literary quotes is from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Although it’s opening line is familiar to most, I think it is rare for people to actually read the paragraph in full and reflect on its underlying insight, which is curiously still applicable over 150 years later:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
We have some of our “noisiest authorities” engaged on this issue of the future of the Chicago Waterway System. Like so many others in our society today, it has become polarized (and polarizing) because people speak based on their ideologies rather than facts. I am hopeful that the agencies recognize that facts are what is needed now more than ever, and that tomorrow’s fish poisoning operation will help move us toward a real solution to the invasive species problem – one that benefits all of us.
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