By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. This is a fish story… a big fish story… the story of two different Asian carp species who have already wiped out the competition down river from the Windy City and now mean to seize Chicago and swim north to capture the Great Lakes. It’s the story of what happens when man changes his environment without understanding the consequences (or, worse, knowing the consequences but going ahead anyway). And it is a story of our sneaking admiration for the… fish… who can outsmart us, the great poobahs of the planet.
For this story, then, I selected the song called “High Hopes”, recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1959. With music written by Jimmy Van Heusen and lyrics by Sammy Cahn, it was introduced in the 1959 film “A Hole in the Head”. It was nominated for a Grammy and won an Oscar for Best Original Song at the 32nd Academy Awards.
It’s a tune about tenacity, persistence, grit and unbeatability… all things the carp have got to spare…. but which we humans often lack, too often taking the easy path… dozing through the crises around us. You can find this number in any search engine. Go now, listen up and get in the “can do” mood. And if you find the version Sinatra recorded for John F. Kennedy’s campaign in 1960, give a listen. It’s a classic piece of Americana.
How the carp got here.
The first thing you need to know about this story is that we did it to ourselves. Yep. Imagine you are a friendly, law-abiding carp. You’re living somewhere in Asia and life is good. You’ve got all the plankton you want… and you’ve got the respect of all the other denizens in the water ways you have populated and control. You’re the boss.
Then one day in the 1980s you find yourself captured by some hoodlum who’s sold you and your captured buddies to a bunch of Southern U.S. municipal wastewater treatment facilities. Your job: to control algae growth in aquaculture. Disgusting. You’re forced to do this job, this really dirty job, and you do… biding your time until you can escape to freedom and cleaner water. Then one day when the humans who are supposed to keep you in captivity aren’t looking you… break out… and start swimming north! And along the way you reproduce like crazy. By the time the schleppers at the wastewater plant have figured out what you’re doing, you are already a significant river presence, a fact to be reckoned with… and you’re having the time of your life, reproducing faster than ever.
Facts about silver carp.
The silver carp is a species of freshwater cyprinid fish, a variety of Asian carp native to north and northeast Asia. It is cultivated in China. Pound for pound, more silver carp are produced worldwide in aquaculture than any other species. It has been introduced to, or spread into via connected waterways, at least 88 countries worldwide. The most common reason for importation was for use in aquaculture, but enhancement of wild fisheries and water quality control were also important reasons for importation.
These facts are important, of course, but what’s really important is this:
1) These carp are BIG, whoppers. Their average weight is 30-40 pounds, but it is not uncommon to find some weighing up to 110 pounds.
2) They can leap 10 feet in the air, thereby presenting substantial hazards for people fishing from boats. And you must never water ski in areas known to be inhabited by silver carp and bighead carp. That would be most foolhardy.
3) These carp are voracious eaters and in short order deprive native fishes of the nutrients they require while eating up to 20% of their body weight each day.
4) They are difficult to catch. Silver carp are filter feeders; this is what makes them difficult to catch on a typical hook and line gear. Special methods have been developed to catch these fish, the most important being the “suspension method” usually consisting of a large dough ball that disintegrates slowly, surrounded by a nest of tiny hooks that are embedded in the bait.
5) Silver carp feeding on certain species of blue-green algae, notably the often toxic Microcystis, can pass through the gut of silver carp unharmed, and pick up nutrients while in the gut. Thus, in some cases blue-green algae blooms have been exacerbated by silver carp… and the carp are therefore hazardous to eat.
Now this resourceful adversary, so far successful in all its endeavors, wants to seize Chicago and move into the greatest hunting area on earth, the Great Lakes, where, by the shores of Gitche Gumee, By the shining Big-Sea-Water, Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Thus did America’s great Victorian poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in “The Song of Hiawatha” (1855) write of Lake Superior, now a target for the silver carp and a prime reason why at this very moment in August 2011 deeply concerned humans are racing to raise defences which must hold, or the fish will triumph.
The carp must take the Chicago Waterway System to reach their goal… and we must make sure they cannot seize it.
The manmade Chicago Waterway System connects the Great Lakes to the Illinois River, which then connects to the Mississippi River. Both sides know the pivotal battle will be fought here. Each side controls a major part of the puzzle. The silver and bighead carp have overwhelmed the Mississippi River network; humans still own the Great Lakes.
The carp have numbers and time on their side. They also know that they can sacrifice as many of their species as necessary to win; they will produce as many as required. Above all, they know this: that their human adversaries must keep EVERY invasive carp out of the Great Lakes… while the carp have only to get ONE carp into the Great Lakes to seize the first lake, then all the lakes, and change the environment forever, turning it to their exclusive advantage and wrecking havoc on the ecology existing now. The stakes could hardly be higher.
That is why today, on a perfect summer’s day for fishing, crews will instead be straining muscle and mind to stop these brazen invaders, already too close for comfort. They will be using electric jolts to stun fish, sweeping the waterway with half-mile-long nets, and sampling and resampling Lake Calumet and the Calumet River.
What the folks at the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Council (which keeps a detailed daily blog on the subject) find so troubling is this: DNA from silver carp has already been found in 11 samples in the lake and river in July. The US Army Corps of Engineers announced July 22 that it had found additional samples containing DNA from silver carp. Experts cannot say from the sampling whether live fish are already in the lake or if genetic material came from dead fish or was carried into the lake from bilge water. The sampling, of course, continues… and chary professionals remind us no final verdict on the matter is yet possible.
But for me, my money’s on the fish. They have outsmarted us at every turn, with every current in the great river system they now control. They have destroyed an immemorial eco-system, snuffing out every native variety of fish, destroying, too, boating, fishing, and travel businesses along the way, replacing lucrative native fisheries with their own flesh, worth so much less on the open market.
They insist that nothing, absolutely nothing, will pause their onrushing vehemence. Against such a determined adversary, have we the grit and commitment necessary to win… or are we just going through the paces, already defeated? These dog days of August will determine all. Like I said, I’m betting on the fish. They’ve got the high hopes.