Many of you probably know about the Asian carp problem that has strangled the Illinois River. This invasive fish has had a population explosion and is causing issues for native species throughout the river system.
Asian carp were originally brought to the United States for use in aquaculture ponds and waste water facilities with the expectation that carp would keep those waters clean. Flooding allowed some of the fish to escape into the Mississippi River system. The Illinois River is a tributary of the Mississippi and the fish made their way here.
The reason this is a serious concern is because nobody wants the fish to reach the Great Lakes through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal system. The carp compete with native species for food sources and therefore can harm native populations. The Great Lakes support a large recreational and commercial fishing industry and is one of the largest fresh water systems in the world. We need to protect it.
I was so fortunate this last week to talk to a U.S. Geological Survey scientist conducting work to develop tools for management agencies to use to control Asian carps. Mark Gaikowski is a Supervisory Biologist with the USGS’ Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center leading a group of scientists that are studying these fishes and developing potential methods to control them.
The first thing that he told me is the name Asian carp is actually a generic term that refers to four different species of carp. They are the silver, bighead, grass and black carp. The two species that are the biggest problem in the Illinois River are the silver and bighead carp, collectively referred to as bigheaded carps.
Gaikowski explained to me that the USGS are currently in a four-phase process of understanding the fish and developing tools for management agencies to incorporate within an integrated pest management program to control bigheaded carps. First, the biologists need to understand the life history of these carp. They need to understand the entire life cycle of the fish. Are there certain points during its life cycle where possible controls are more effective? These are the types of questions that hopefully can be answered by understanding the life history.
The second step is to study the hydraulic requirements of these fishes at different life stages.
What type of aquatic environments do the Asian carp use to spawn? What areas do they use during normal feeding activity? Where do they normally hang out in the river? Asking these questions will help biologists be more effective in developing ways to stop them.
The third phase is to identify early detection tools. Early detection may include something like taking DNA samples from the river to determine if the carp are present in certain areas.
The fourth and final phase is to develop controls. When we talk about controls, we are referring to methods that can be used to reduce the population or to keep the population from spreading into new territories. Some of the controls that are currently in place include the efforts coordinated by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to employ commercial fishermen to catch and remove the carp or the electrical barriers deployed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to keep Asian carps from entering the Great Lakes through the CSSC.
Gaikowski also mentioned how important it is to understand the effect these controls have on native populations of fish. The trick is to find a way to stop the Asian carp without hurting species that are important to the natural ecosystem of the river. This is why the research is so important.
Ever since mankind has walked this Earth he has brought species of animals from one region to another. Often times this has created an invasive situation like we are dealing with now on the Illinois River. Hopefully, with the leadership of biologists like Gaikowski we can take a step forward in controlling or even stopping this current threat.
If you would like information regarding Asian carp, you can go to www.asiancarp.org. This website is full of resources that will answer just about any question you may have.