On the shorelines of Lake Michigan — and in fishing harbors all along the five Great Lakes — thousands of fisherman are worried they may soon be angling for fish that are amazingly simple to catch.
The 4-foot-long, 70-pound Asian carp — known along the Mississippi River as the "jumping fish" — grow agitated at the sound of motors and leap out of the water, enabling anyone with strong arms and a big net to literally catch them right out of the air.
Despite the comical imagery, there is a serious problem — no one wants the Asian carp in the Great Lakes. It really doesn't belong in America at all.
"I haven't seen this kind of fear in the people who fish the Great Lakes in a long time," says Marc Gaden, the communications officer of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission that looks after the fishery in eight states and two Canadian provinces.
The fear comes from the carp's voracious appetite. They feed on the bottom of the food chain, and once they are in a body of water there is not really room for many other fish. Plus, they breed at an incredible rate.
"If the Asian carp gets into the Great Lakes we're in serious trouble," says Dennis Schornack, the American chairman of the Great Lakes International Commission. "We'd see a $4½ billion fishing industry go down the tubes," he said, referring to the combined American and Canadian commercial fishing industry.
No Room for Other Fish
If fishermen are afraid along the Great Lakes, it's because they have learned lessons from those who live along the Mississippi River. The bottom-feeding Asian carp were imported in the 1980s by Arkansas fish farms and were supposed to clean up catfish ponds.
But with the floods of the 1990s, the carp escaped into the Mississippi River and began their swim north. They're in the Illinois River now and just 30 miles from Lake Michigan — and on their way, they ate everything.
Right now, the only thing keeping the carp at bay is an underwater electrical barrier on the Chicago Shipping and Sanitary canal that connects the Illinois River to Lake Michigan. The government has just decided to add a backup generator to the barrier to reinforce it in case the carp decide to swim north during a power failure.
Dennis Schornack hopes that might be enough to keep the carp south but "the odds are getting slimmer and slimmer that we can stop them," he said.
A Chance to Halt Havoc
Right now, few people eat the carp, although the fish is considered a delicacy in Asia. That may present yet another problem for the Lakes. Chicago on Lake Michigan and Toronto on Lake Ontario have "live" fish markets where they sell the carp. And there is an Asian custom of buying two live fish and setting one free. Marine biologists believe that the small number of Asian carp found so far in the Great Lakes originated in stores.
The Great Lakes are vulnerable, as there are now more than 100 so-called "alien invasive" species creating havoc with the fish native to the waters.
But those species are usually only noticed too late after they have already spread out through the waters. This time, they have a chance of keeping a species out.
But Gaden of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission concedes that "once the Asian carp enter the lakes there's very little chance we'll be able to do anything about them."