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Asian Carp: A Tale of Two Fish Poisonings

Thom Cmar

Posted May 20, 2010

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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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ThamusMay 24 2010 04:02 AM

Did this ever occur to you? Very few people see and know what I am going to say. The eDNA they are finding are FALSE POSITIVES. Dead fish get transported above the barrier or in the couplings of barges. The eDNA hotbeds below O'brien is were barges fleet and dead fish get kicked into the water. Everywhere they are finding DNA is where they fleet barges. I have seen dead silver carp on the sides of barges and both (silver and bighead) in couplings. They jump on (or get smashed in the couplings) below the barrier and die... I will be really shocked if this lastest fish poisoning witch hunt gets any bad carp. They have found Asian carp, grass carp... But they aren't the problem... Those are already in the lakes and NOT reproducing. What makes you so sure the silver and bighead will too? The silver carp get knocked into the water above the barrier when the tow reaches port or its barges get fleeted. Dead fish can't reproduce even if they are carrying eggs. The fish need 60 (100km) of adequate (note I said: adequate) river to spawn. Even know they are lake fish in China... They can't spawn in the lake. Just maybe by wave action... But that is a big IF. Anyway, the lake is literally a desert.

Thom CmarMay 24 2010 08:58 AM

Thamus, thanks for the comment. Yes, your theory has occurred to me... but, respectfully, do you have any evidence to back it up? Because until you do, it isn't valid science -- it's just a theory.

David Lodge and his team at Notre Dame have been developing their e-DNA methodology for several years now. Dr. Lodge tells me that they have never received a false positive result. If anything, Dr. Lodge tells me, the e-DNA method is a conservative one: when Dr. Lodge and his team have tested for e-DNA in portions of the Illinois River where Asian carp are clearly present in significant numbers, even then they have only obtained positive results roughly 60% of the time. So if anything, the e-DNA test that Dr. Lodge and his team have been using in the Chicago Waterway System generates false negatives, not false positives.

ThamusMay 24 2010 12:15 PM

All you got is my word and honestly. I would love to tell you what I do... Very few people will see what I see and most do not have the will or ability to express it.

What I want to know is: Are they getting as strong of eDNA hits now as they did in the fall of 2009? Or, are the readings tapering off?

All I can say is that I have seen dead fish with my own eyes... The easy ones to spot are silver on the sides of loaded barges (loaded barges have less freeboard) Last fall, right before the testing is when I seen them dead (dead silver). I have been telling people right up the chain. Those fish had to end up somewhere?? I do understand that the towing industry has to be more of a stickler about sweeping barges off BEFORE THE BARRIER. What about fleeting and the crap/carp caught inbetween the couplings? What about the water that MWRD sends around? eDNA can end up in the upper pool (port/Lake Michigan) of O'Brien and then get sent into the deep tunnel... Not even that, some how the fish DNA could have ended up in the storm sewers. The res and pumping station is below O'Brien in the lower pool and after a storm, water gets let out into that pool. That is all I can say... I have been working on that part of the river for almost 20 years... If I see a dead fish, I will be sure to grab it... I don't know what ever happened to the fish I have seen. I thought it was strange... But didn't think nothing of it at the time... Then whamo! I find out that there is DNA testing on this stuff. How convienent.

You mean after 11,000 distressed fish that has been recovered, none were silver or bighead... Again, they did find lots of grass carp. Can they tell the difference in eDNA reading? I am by no means a stats guy... I find that statistically hard to believe, even if they have different types of stomachs and they sink. The fish have slowly been coming to the top and there are a lot more on the bottom. Still no silver or bighead are found. Now the excuse is that the water temp is not 70 degrees. The water temp is around 63 degrees at O'Brien right now. Water temp will not get to 70 until at least a MONTH from now. True last year was a cold summer, but water temp was 69 degrees at O'Brien lock on August 22!

I really think in this area they are getting false positives!

ThamusMay 24 2010 12:39 PM

"But river, while you're rambling, you can do some work for me." ~ Woody Guthrie

Not to be disrespectful Thom, but you are chasing jobs overseas were the harm to the evironment is 100 times worse. There has to be a happy medium. In this case, you are make it more expensive to ship on the inland. Product will surely move to the Amazon were the rape is 100 fold like I said. It is already happening.

I too come from working class roots, yet even with a degree... I still choose those working class roots to provide the livelyhood for my family and I.

I see the very strong need to protect the environment yet we can't let NIBMY'ism run amuk.

Let's start protecting the WHOLE planet and that starts at home with moderation.

Like an old Woody Guthrie Columbia River Ballad:

"Good Morning, Mister Sunshine!"
"Good morning, Man!" I'm just a stranger, travelin' 'cross y'r land;
Do y' need a good workhand
On your big Grand Coulee dam?

I'd like to settle down but I'm forced to ramble all o' my time,
I'd like to settle down with this wife and kids of mine;
But a place to settle down my family
Is a pretty hard place to find!

I like to work. I work every time I can!
I got a callous in the palms of both o' my hands!
This ramblin' around from town to town
Goes hard on a family man!

I said I like to work, I don't like to beg and steal!
The harder I'm a workin' the better it makes me feel!
But my wife and kid get juberous
Everytime they miss a meal!

I'm a hardrock man, I was born in a hardrock place!
Back in my home place I was a man of high degree!
Nobody with a triphammer
Can knock as big a hole as me.

This Columbia River
Rolls right down this line;
Columbia's waters taste like sparklin' wine;
Dustbowl waters taste like picklin' brine.

The money that I draw from workin' at your Coullee dam;
My wife will meet me at the kitchen door stretchin' out her hand;
She'll make a little down payment
On our forty acre tract of land.

We'll work along this river, I'll sing from sun to sun;
I'll walk along this grass and listen to the factory hum;
Look what I've done gone and done.

Take some sow from off this mountain, mix it with some wind and rain!
Take some metal from yer mountain, melt it up again;
Stir it up with powers from Coullee's dam,
And you've got a big sabre jet plane.

Take some water from this valley, mix it up with snow;
Take my ramblin' family rollin' down this road;
Mix it up with sunshine
And, man, you ought to see the green things grow!

Thom CmarMay 24 2010 03:27 PM

Hi Thamus -- If you don't want to take my word for it, I'd encourage you to take a look at what the scientists who study Asian carp and know it best are saying on these issues you raise.

Duane Chapman of the US Geological Survey, who does not necessarily agree with NRDC's take on how we should be confronting the problem of invasive species using the Chicago Waterway System as a highway, said in a recent Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article ( that due to the elusive nature of Asian carp, finding no fish in areas where there have been positive e-DNA results doesn't prove anything, and that even if there were 100 fish present in the Chicago Waterway System you wouldn't necessarily catch one.

Meanwhile, Lyndsey Chadderton at the Nature Conservancy, who helped Dr. David Lodge develop the e-DNA methodology, did an interview recently with the Chicago Reader ( in which he pointed out that the overall pattern of positive e-DNA results cannot be explained by vectors other than the movement of fish, such as birds or barges. Indeed, a number of positive e-DNA results have been detected in portions of the North Shore Channel, in which barges to not go.

The point of my blog entry above is that we should be listening to these experts -- that real science should be guiding the policy decisions on what should be done. I hope that's something that we can agree on.

Thom CmarMay 24 2010 03:42 PM

Thamus -- I'm not sure where you get the idea that the solution we're calling for is anti-Chicago or anti-jobs. As I note above and have emphasized repeatedly in my other posts on this (see this one, for example:, the only real solution to the problem of invasive species moving through the Chicago Waterway System is one that takes into account all of the important functions that the CWS plays in our economy and way of life and invests in new infrastructure that will do all of those things and do them better. In other words, a real solution must involve smart, well-planned investments that will benefit Chicago and the entire region: new ways to move goods and manage wastewater and stormwater that should lead to more jobs, better water quality, and more recreational opportunities.

I think the real question is, why is that 100 years ago Chicago was able to think big and construct the Waterway System, but today we are unable to think big enough to fix it?

ThamusMay 24 2010 06:30 PM

Thanks Thom for your comments... They are much appreciated.

To answer your question:

I think the real question is, why is that 100 years ago Chicago was able to think big and construct the Waterway System, but today we are unable to think big enough to fix it?

IMO, the answer is becuase it is too expensive now. Chicago and the MidWest will not be able to compete with the rest of the world cheaply enough. O'Brien lock and dam only cost 6 million dollars to build in 1960... Tacked on to the SeaWay project. A 60 day closure at O'Brien costs the economy roughly about 18 million dollars. That is a lot of bang for taxpayers buck. Can that smae return be provided today? Heck, in the last 50 year it cost less to build, run, and staff the lock than the 78 million they just appropriated to combat the fish problem. In other words we will price ourself right out of a competitive global market. A lot of the world's "bread basket" is already shifting towards the Amazon. The eco battle should be there.

On another note... Why aren't they pushing to close the SeaWay? In 50 years, more invasive species have come through that door to a tune of one per year. The electric fish barrier in Romeoville was first constructed to combat invasive species coming from the lakes (like the round goby)... Not for Asian carp.

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