Lester GrahamJanuary 24, 2000
States in the Mississippi River Basin are protesting a decision by the state of Mississippi to allow a foreign fish to be introduced to control a pest. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Lester Graham reports the other states are concerned the fish will escape into the wild and damage the environment:
If you buy a package of catfish filets at the supermarket or order blackened catfish at your favorite restaurant, chances are that fish was raised in a farm pond in Mississippi. The state of Mississippi supplies almost three-fourths of the world's commercial catfish. It's a two-billion dollar a year business, coming in only after cotton and timber as one of Mississippi's largest industries.
In recent years, Mississippi farmers have been struggling with a parasite that's attacking the catfish. Jimmy Avery is a researcher with the National Warmwater Aquaculture Center at Mississippi State University. He says the parasite is causing quite a bit of damage.
"It's either killing these fish outright or it's stressing them to the point they no longer grow."
Avery says the parasite makes its home in snails. To get rid of the snails, the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and commerce has approved introducing an Asian fish called the black carp. The black carp eats snails and mussels. But, other states are worried that the black carp will escape the farm ponds and get into the wild. Avery says that's not likely...
"The Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce has decided that through the permit process, we can minimize this. They'll know where every black carp is located. They'll know what kinds of system they've been put in and it felt like that those regulations that had been put in place are strong enough to prevent that."
But the State of Missisippi's assurances don't convince others. Roger Klosek is the Director of Conservation at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. He studies native mussels.
"If black carp are used to deal with the snail problem, eventually they'll escape into the main waterways, and start reproducing. And once they do that, they'll start feeding on the native mussel fauna which is one of the last remaining native mussel faunas in the United States and literally wipe it out."
Klosek says native mussel populations have already been hurt by another exotic species, the zebra mussel. He believes the black carp would be the last straw for American freshwater mussels.
"So, somebody's going to lose and it's probably better - I know the catfish farmers will hate me for saying this, but - it's probably better that they lose a little economically rather than reduce some of the native fauna to an irretrievable state."
Some states' officials agree with Klosek. Bill Bertrand works with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources fisheries office. He says there's a history of Asian carp getting loose. The silver carp, the bighead carp, and the grass carp have already escaped from farm ponds, mostly from Arkansas where there are few regulations.
"There's a history of these exotics, imports, escaping into the river system, spreading throughout the entire river basin system and causing impacts on all the other states in the system. And Mississippi appears to tend to ignore that fact and go ahead their own merry way, saying 'Well we're doing this because we want to do it and it's beneficial to us.'"
Bertrand says governors of some of the states along the Mississippi River have sent letters to the Governor of the State of Mississippi, asking him to stop the use of black carp. Several of the states intend to ask the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ban the importation of the fish. The federal agency has not yet received that request... but even if the Fish and Wildlife service found a ban was appropriate, it would take several months to go through the process. Even then, a ban would not apply to black carp already in the U.S.
Mike Oetker is a fisheries biologist with the Fish and Wildlife service. He says the agency is trying to play the role of mediator.
"Right now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to work with states and the industry to try to prevent the problem of the possible release or accidental release of black carp into the environment. There are several alternatives to black carp where we can use native fish such as the red ear sunfish or freshwater drum or even big mouth buffalo to do the same type of biological control that the black carp are doing. And that would give of the ability to kind of circumvent this problem."
The catfish farmers in the State of Mississippi say the native fish don't eat the snails as quickly as the black carp. The Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce says it will ask farmers to use chemical treatments first and where native fish will work, they'll try to use them. but in the end, the Mississippi agency says it will allow catfish farmers to use black carp when it appears other methods don't work.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.