The fight to keep carp out of the Great Lakes


Bighead, silver, and black carp — not to be confused with bigmouth buffalo or other bottom-feeding native species — are all invasive species that exist in the Mississippi River Basin and are found in gateway to the Great Lakes.

These three invasive carp species were introduced to the United States from Europe in the 1970s to suppress algal blooms in aquaculture facilities and sewage treatment plants, as well as for human consumption. However, they soon escaped and began to wreak havoc. As well as knocking people off their boats, these invasive carp species pose a huge risk to the biodiversity of the waters they inhabit, including threatening the survival of many species of fish we love to catch and eat.

Researchers and managers have identified the site of the Brandon Road Lock and Dam on the Des Plaines River as a pinch point for silver, bighead, and black carp trying to migrate to Lake Michigan. Now the task is to set up a series of barriers to prevent these invasive carp from crossing that line.

For most of the past decade, this project has been contemplated under the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), a massive federal law that funds all kinds of water infrastructure. Construction of this project was authorized in the 2020 WRDA. Members of Congress aim to fund the project in the 2022 version of the bill, which is being considered this summer.

What’s wrong with carp?

Like most invasive species, bighead carp, silver carp, and black carp have no natural predators where they are found in the United States. Although these three species do not currently inhabit the Great Lakes watershed, common carp, goldfish, and grass carp do inhabit the basin.

Due to the voracious and omnivorous appetites of all these invasive carp, they cause severe damage to forage fisheries and aquatic plants. These effects spill over to other fisheries in all aquatic ecosystems, and the impacts would only increase if these carp find their way into the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes Basin is incredibly diverse. It stretches from the extremely cold and deep waters of Lake Superior to the shallow bays, rivers, inland lakes and bayous that dot the coasts. These hydrological differences support a large number of fish species, many of which we enjoy catching and others invaluable in supporting the rest of the ecosystem.

“Invasive carp pose a massive threat to the biodiversity of the fisheries they invade. From the game fish we consume as anglers to the forage fish that provide the rest of the food web, invasive carp are compromising biodiversity wherever we find them,” said Drew YoungeDyke, director of conservation partnerships at the Great Lakes Regional Center. from the National Wildlife Federation, says MeatEater.

Silver and bighead carp also tend to jump up to 10 feet out of the water when they feel the vibrations of boat engines, geese taking off, or when disturbed by something below the surface. This erratic behavior causes all sorts of problems for people who enjoy spending time on the water, namely the fear of being knocked off a boat by a flying fish.

Spencer Neuharth has had his fair share of experiences with invasive carp.

“I grew up 30 miles from the Gavin’s Point Dam on the Missouri River in South Dakota. It’s the last dam on the Missouri. In my life I’ve seen this body of water go from the absence of silver or bighead carp at one of the most invasive carp infested waterways in America,” he said. “It has seriously harmed the walleye fishery and ruined many many opportunities for boaters. It also makes sampling much more difficult for biologists who now have to deal with invasive carp filling all the gillnets and trammel nets they set. This is not only annoying, but it has also impacting their paddlefish and sturgeon studies in a part of Missouri that is extremely important to both.

Apparently invasive carp are quite tasty, but that doesn’t mean we want them to harm other fisheries or our opportunities to enjoy them.

What’s at stake?

The US Geological Survey has spent years researching the potential impacts of black, silver, and bighead carp in the Great Lakes, especially Lake Michigan. The USGS has found that within a mile of shore there is plenty of food for these invasive carp to eat, especially linked to the drowned river mouths and bayous that dot the shorelines of Lakes Michigan and Huron. Essentially, these riparian aquatic habitats are nearly ideal sites for invasive carp. These spots also happen to be very good recreational fishing for largemouth bass, panfish, and pike.

Similarly, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has done research to model the risk of these invasive carp on Lake Huron walleye and perch populations. These studies suggest that when invasive carp are around at almost any cost, perch would take a big hit. When these invasive carp species are present in large numbers, walleye and perch stocks will decline.

All of these fish support robust recreational fisheries that we can all enjoy, but they are also very important economically.

“Great Lakes fishing generates more than $7 billion in economic impact that supports jobs, businesses and communities along their 9,000 miles of shoreline,” said Chad Tokowicz, former chief policy officer for the Great Lakes. ‘American Sportfishing Association, in a press release.

However, this impact will be felt even more in Michigan, where most of this coastline exists.

“Michigan’s recreational fishery, the cities, communities, livelihoods and people it supports, are all at stake,” said Michigan United Conservation Clubs Executive Director Amy Trotter. “This issue of keeping invasive carp out of the Great Lakes has been around for too long. They pose a risk to our waters, wildlife and recreational opportunities that could bring down a more than two billion dollar industry that Michigan residents depend on.

It’s something we really can’t afford to lose.

Why Brandon Road?

The spread of silver, bighead and black carp is a national problem, but the focus is currently at the intersection of two of the country’s major waterways.

“Illinois is where the Great Lakes and Mississippi basins connect, putting us on the front lines of the spread of invasive carp,” said Colleen Callahan, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. , at MeatEater. “The Brandon Road Lock and Dam project in Joliet will create a primary barrier system to help prevent the spread of invasive carp into Lake Michigan. This is an important project for the ecological and economic health of the entire Great Lakes region.

The Brandon Road Lock and Dam is the last hurdle to stop these invasive species of carp from entering the Great Lakes Basin, but it needs some improvements to ensure these fish cannot pass from the basin to the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan. These include air bubble curtains, electric barriers and acoustic deterrents to prevent these invasive carp from moving further upstream.

In 2020, the Army Corps of Engineers began the planning and design phase of this project by developing specific plans, sourcing contractors, and determining the feasibility of the project. Since then, huge coalitions of people have focused on getting the rest of the money to pay for this build.

Where are we ?

The House version of the WRDA recently came out of this chamber, and the Senate is preparing to consider its own version of the WRDA. Both versions would finance a large part of the Brandon Road Lock and Dam project (80% and 90%, respectively), but would not cover all of the costs.

Many are excited to see this finally come to fruition, but are still calling on the federal government to fund the entire balance of the project.

“The Brandon Road Lock and Dam is a nationally significant project, so we would really like to see full federal funding for the project to ensure the continued health and vitality of these fisheries for future generations,” YoungeDyke said.

This is our last and best chance to keep invasive carp species out of the Great Lakes, and this project needs all the support it can get.

If you would like to help secure full funding for this project, call the US House switchboard at (202) 224-3121, ask that office to put you in touch with your representative’s staff, and tell them you support full federal funding for the Brandon Road Inter-Basin Locks and Dams Project in the Water Resources Development Act. When you’re done, use this roll call to call your two senators and tell them the same thing.

Feature image via Wikipedia Commons.


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