Putting the brakes on fish invasions

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Setback in fight against invasive Asian carp

Should an artificial waterway in Chicago be closed to block two highly destructive fish from entering Lake Michigan and then the other four Great Lakes?


Boat on river with two men with nets over water; fish high in air, trees on right and far bank.

Photo: Steve Hillebrand, U.S. FWS
An invasive Asian carp leaps above a biologist trying to snag it at Big Muddy National Fish & Wildlife Refuge in Missouri. Asian carp, imported to clean fish ponds, have spread widely through the continent’s largest river system, and are poised to enter the Great Lakes. Those prongs create an electric field that causes the fish to rise to the surface.

On Feb. 27, the Supreme Court said ‘no’ when it declined to revisit an appeal by the State of Michigan, which wanted to compel closure of the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal. The canal, created to drain stormwater and wastewater from Chicago, could allow silver and bighead carp from the nearby Des Plaines River to enter Lake Michigan.

Since the two carp, native to Asia, escaped from fish ponds in the South in the 1970s, they have occupied much of the Mississippi River system, and have become extremely abundant in rivers near the Canal. Biologists, state agencies and the Great Lakes Commission warn that once the fish reach Lake Michigan, they will likely spread through the five lakes, then into the St. Lawrence River.

The Great Lakes hold almost 20 percent of the world’s fresh water and border eight states and two Canadian Provinces. Given the silver carp’s fearful jumping habits, and the potential for both species to steal food from the mouths of sport fish, the invasion could threaten recreational boating and commercial, sport and tribal fishing that gross $16.4 billion per year.1

Video: spiff80boy
Silver carp are God’s gift to YouTube… making some of the scariest “natural” history videos around!

Although the Great Lakes already house at least 180 invasive species, ecologists warn about irreparable harm from Asian carp. They say prevention is cheaper and easier than eradication — which may be a practical impossibility.

Originally, the watersheds of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River were separate. The two were united by the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which drains stormwater and treated wastewater into the Mississippi River system.

Don’t fence me out!

Although three electric “fences” across the canal have apparently managed to block the fish from entering Lake Michigan, many scientists view the barriers as stopgaps at best, and Asian carp DNA has been found several times beyond the fences.

While that DNA suggests that the carp are already in Lake Michigan, the fish have not been found there. Still, ecologists, accustomed to studying the disastrous aftermath of invasives on land and in water, would love to protect the Great Lakes from the carp by closing the canal. That would also protect the Mississippi River from invasion from the Lakes.

“The Asian carp situation is analogous to medicine, where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” says Jake Vander Zanden, a professor of zoology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an expert on freshwater invasive species. “It makes so much more sense to keep them out, rather that let them in and deal with the consequences forever.”

Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds

Great Lakes Watershed and Mississippi watershed both highlighted on satellite view of Great Lakes region

Great Lakes segment modified from Phizzy
“X” marks the spot where Chicago sends its floodwater and wastewater to the Mississippi watershed. A canal connecting the two giant watersheds was opened in 1900.

The shipping industry, reliant on these waterways, wants to keep the Chicago waterways open, said Mark Biel, chairman of UnLock Our Jobs by email. “Nobody wants to see the Asian carp get into the Great Lakes… This is, however, a manageable issue that requires a long-term, comprehensive plan, and separation is simply not a solution. Given the size, scope and complexity of separating the two bodies of water, it’s clear that the costs would be enormous and the timeline — if it’s possible at all — would do nothing to address the immediate threat of Asian carp.”


Many grayish empty shells with some brown.

Zebra mussels, a major nuisance in the Great Lakes, probably arrived in ballast water from ocean-going ships. The mussel is spreading through rivers and smaller lakes in North America.

Invasions can be expensive. The Environmental Protection Agency figured that just the invasives delivered in ballast water cut commercial fish landings by 13 percent to 33 percent in the U.S. Great Lakes, at an annual cost of $200 million. The estimate did not cover Canada’s part of the lakes, or species that arrived by other means.

What’s the problem with carp? What can be done to prevent their entry into the Great Lakes and beyond? Are invasive species always so damaging to ecosystems?

What’s the beef about carp?

Asian carp are heavy-bodied fish native to Asia that have occupied large parts of the Mississippi River watershed, where their rapid reproduction, voracious feeding (up to two or three times their body weight in plant and animal plankton per day), and made-for-home-video jumps are making life miserable for native fish and fishing people alike. The two carp considered most threatening to the Great Lakes — silver and bighead — originated in Southern fish ponds, where they were placed as natural vacuum cleaners to suck plankton from dirty ponds.

Since at least 1980, when the escape of the silver and bighead was detected, that voracious appetite was transformed from selling point to sticking point.


Pile of dead fish in rectangular, black plastic lined container beside tree-lined river.

Carp killed with rotenone during sampling in the Little Calumet River in Illinois await disposal. The sampling helped track the Asian carp population.

You might observe — correctly — that species have been moving since life began. It’s true that invasions are an old story, but it’s only half the story: the process has been force-fed by commerce and technology. “This is a natural process; it was once a trickle, but the rate at which it happens now is so devastating,” says Vander Zanden. “With globalization, trade, travel, things are moving so fast, it’s a fundamentally different process, and the implications are huge.”

It’s impossible to predict exactly how well Asian carp would fare in the Great Lakes; their abundance will depend on temperature, food supply, the emergence of diseases and predators, and factors that we can’t predict. But the lakes have a wide variety of habitats, and inevitably some would be conducive to the invaders.

The fundamental reason why invasive species reach nuisance levels resides in the predators, diseases or competitors they leave behind in their homeland. In the new habitat, the traveling species often gets an unfair advantage, enabling it to grow to astonishing abundance and crowd out native species.

Asian carp provide a perfect example of the process. They were deliberately imported to work on Southern fish ponds, and their ability to outcompete native fish for food and habitat “has led to the widespread establishment of Asian carp in the Mississippi River, impacting the natural balance of the aquatic ecosystem,”2.

Can we keep carp from the greatest lakes?

On January 31, 2012, the Great Lakes Commission, an international body charged with maintaining the environmental and economic vitality of Earth’s largest lakes, issued a report describing three options for physically separating the two giant drainages to block invasions in both directions. The report was greeted by a number of officials from the region, including Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel.

These waterways connect the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds near Chicago. Built to drain storm- and waste-water from the city, the system is also used by barges carrying grain and fuel. The electric barriers have apparently kept Asian carp from the lakes, but many scientists think they will eventually fail. ROLL OVER MAP, below to see a new proposal for separating the Great Lakes from the big river.

Maps: modified from original maps by Great Lakes Commission

The Obama Administration opposes closure of the Chicago canal, and in February it proposed to spend $51.5 million on Asian carp research. The money will buy more trapping and netting, to assess whether the fish have reached Lake Michigan, research on fish trapping with chemical attractants, and noisemakers to scare carp from entrances to the lake.

The focus on Chicago is misleading, according to Biel, who notes that the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study, from the Army Corps of Engineers, found “18 aquatic pathways throughout the region (not just Chicago alone) by which the Asian carp could get into the Great Lakes. The existence of these other pathways, which cannot simply be closed, demonstrates the importance of a regional solution to control Asian carp populations. That’s why we have to expand our sights beyond Chicago to determine a comprehensive control plan that implements measures in all of the pathways… .”

Philip Moy is a senior scientist at the Aquatic Sciences Center at UW-Madison who previously worked on the issue for the Corps of Engineers. “Electric barriers buy us time, and we need to do two things,” Moy says. “We should look into additional barrier technologies that can be added to augment the electrical approach… . We need to look pretty hard at the Great Lake Commission report suggesting that the lake and river can be re-separated. It would cost a lot of money, a century of infrastructure has built up there, but what’s the logic of waiting another 10 years to get started on a project that can take a generation to complete?”


Rusted cylindrical pipes, with one in center cut diagonally open, showing mussel-lined interior

This intake pipe in Lake Ontario, Canada, shows zebra mussels clogging essential infrastructure.

The “mid-system separation alternative” proposed by the Great Lakes Commission was estimated to cost $3.26 to $4.27 billion. The latest federal appropriation for monitoring and research related to Asian carp will bring the three-year cost for controlling Asian carp in the area to $156.5 million.

Separation, Biel wrote, “would effectively end waterborne commerce through the Chicago Area Waterway System. The Great Lakes Commission report mischaracterizes how vessels could move containers around the Chicago rail gridlock, giving the impression that there would be a way to facilitate both separation and continued cargo movement.”

Muscling in on the mussels

There are good reasons why zebra and quagga mussels are often mentioned in discussions about invasives in the Great Lakes. Since the zebra entered the lakes in ballast water used to stabilize ships a couple of decades ago, it has clogged water intakes at power plants and water utilities.

Along with a later arrival, the quagga mussel, the zebra has eaten enough plankton to change the ecology of the lakes, and the zebra is now spreading to smaller lakes and rivers.

To prevent further hitchhikers in ballast water, ships now must replace their ballast water in the ocean with salt water, which carries organisms that are unlikely to survive in the freshwater lakes. “Every ship coming in is inspected by the Coast Guard before it reaches the Great Lakes,” Moy says, “and we haven’t discovered another ballast-related species since 2006. In the lakes, there is a growing spirit of cooperation between the companies that operate ships and the states.”

World map showing pathways and circles showing locations of invasive marine species

Salt-water invaders are carried in ballast water and through the pet and fishery trades.

Buying time, but could time be on our side?

Invasive species: the long view

Invasive species have wreaked havoc in San Francisco Bay, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi, which each have more than 100 nasty newcomers. Tropical “paradises” like Florida and Hawaii are overrun with exotic plants, animals and insects.


 Boat in foreground on plant that extends into distance on water lined by forest on left, clear water on right

Photo: travfotos
Water hyacinth infests salt water in Kerala, in southwest India. The same plant is a major nuisance in Florida.

Species invasions also plague smaller lakes, which explains the growing push to prevent the movement of invasive fish, mollusks and plants, by requiring boaters to clean and dry their boats and trailers as they leave a lake.

In Wisconsin, at least, that effort seems to be succeeding, even though not every boater complies, Moy says. “Some people say, ‘If this guy didn’t do it, it’s not the end of the world if I don’t also,’ but it usually takes multiple introductions over time to establish a population. If we reduce the number of introductions per year, we reduce the potential for establishment. Every person makes a difference.”

Although invasives can cause extinctions, evolutionary theory suggests that competitors will arise when a species grows too common. “Often they boom, and then the population comes down, but sometimes you see that, and sometimes you don’t,” says ecologist Jake Vander Zanden.

A recent study of Wisconsin lakes found that most invasives were rare in most lakes, but a few reached extreme populations. That matched the pattern seen in undisturbed ecosystems, where a few species are common but most are rare, Vander Zanden says. Although “invasive” implies a dominant species, the data “don’t show that pattern,” he adds. “Maybe they are playing by the same ecological rules as natives. They are not from another planet.”

As ecologists pursue the science of invasives, what to do about the carp now knocking on the door of the Great Lakes? Biel, of the shipping industry, says, “Despite the uptick in hysteria on this issue, Asian carp populations in Illinois haven’t actually moved up river in six years. That said, we fully support funding the existing electric control barriers because their effectiveness has been demonstrated over and over again.”

Despite “substantial strides” in controlling Asian carp in Illinois and Indiana, including a third electric barrier and physical barriers along the Des Plaines River and the Illinois and Michigan Canal, “there’s simply not enough being done by other Great Lakes states,” Biel says. “Continued calls for lock closure remain a higher priority for our neighbors and other like-minded groups than actually implementing tactics for prevention.”

During the years it would take to seal the Chicago waterways, control technology may improve, says Moy, who points to fresh ideas from the U.S. Geological Survey. Instead of using the pesticide rotenone as a “big hammer” to kill all fish, he says, the Survey is testing a coating for rotenone that would make a deadly fish feed. Once sprinkled in the water, carp and other filter feeders would eat the feed, but only Asian carp have the enzyme that can dissolve the coating to release the rotenone. “It’s much more specific; an elegant application that takes advantage of the fish’s feeding behavior and internal physiology, using an existing, certified” chemical agent, Moy says.

There are benefits to working several angles at once, Moy adds. “These invasions are not inevitable. We can reduce the rate of invasions and the number of introductions per year, and that reduces the likelihood of establishment, and each year we delay introduction to a lake gives research time to come up with a solution.”

— David J. Tenenbaum



  1. Halting the Invasion… Environmental Practice 12 (4) December 2010
  2. Halting the Invasion… Environmental Practice 12 (4) December 2010
  3. Asian carp attack: High stakes in Great Lakes
  4. Supreme Court rejects Asian carp appeal
  5. More about Asian carp
  6. What is a watershed?
  7. Invasive mussels in the Great Lakes
  8. Mussels in Lake Mead: Imperiling the water system
  9. Interactive map of non-indigenous aquatic species
  10. Invasive species in the Great Lakes
  11. The beautiful, destructive water hyacinth
  12. UW-Madison students discover spiny water flea in Lake Mendota