Investing in Asian Carp (Part 5)

  • Mayor Tom Thompson and Lu Xu Wu, CEO of Wuhan Hui Chang Real Estate (speaking through an interpreter). Wuhan Hui Chang is a part investor in American Heartland Fish Products LLC., based in Grafton, IL. (Photo by Adam Allington)

As the nation’s civic leaders search for a permanent solution to keep invasive Asian carp from spreading, other parts of the country are betting on the carp’s future.  Across the Mississippi Valley, fishermen and exporters are teaming up to develop the market for carp, and carp products.  In the final episode of our series on Asian carp, Adam Allington reports how some people hope that selling carp might be the best method for checking their expansion:

When the French explorer Père Marquette traveled down the Illinois River in 1673, his journal tells of encounters with “monstrous fish” so large they nearly overturned his canoe.   

In all likelihood the fish Marquette was talking about were channel catfish, but nearly 340 years later fisherman Josh Havens says it’s bighead carp… and silver carp which now harass boaters on the Illinois (silver carp are the jumpers).

“Oh everybody hates ‘em, except for people that shoot ‘em and stuff like that.  I hate ‘em when I’m trying to tube with my kids, but then when we’re trying to shoot ‘em I like them.  So it’s a love-hate thing.”

Bow-fishing for jumping carp is fun, but the sheer volume of carp is crowding out native fish, so much in fact that in parts of the river 8 out of every 10 fish is an Asian carp.

A fact which some Illinois officials believe could be an asset.

“We should be thinking about these invasive species as opportunities for us to focus on economic development.”

Marc Miller is the Director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.  Speaking to residents in the tiny river town of Grafton Illinois, Miller says he’s bullish on carp in part because of companies like Grafton’s American Heartland Fish Products.

“I mean who else can take lemons and turn them into lemonade, like providing an opportunity for 39 jobs here in this community, that’s what we’re doing with the Asian carp.”

Earlier this summer, a group of Chinese investors announced a partnership with American Heartland Fish to ship 35 million pounds of carp to China over the next three years.

The Illinois Department of Commerce kicked in 2 million dollars to help build the processing plant…a down payment which Grafton Mayor Tom Thompson says is money well spent.

“It’s going to produce jobs, it’s going to revive our local fishing industry and it’s a very important catalyst in trying to solve the environmental problem of carp in the river.”

Carp are considered too boney for American tastes.  But they’re wildly popular in China, where pollution has made many fish unsafe to eat.  The fish caught here are sold as “upper Mississippi wild-caught” carp, with “so much energy they can jump.”

Still others say the Chinese market is a longshot to solve America’s invasive carp problem.

“These guys, I hear all kinds of things about investors, they’re going to have all these multi-million dollar deals with China…and they don’t materialize I’m telling you.”

Steve McNitt is the Sales Manager for Schafer Fish in Northwest Illinois.  He says they’ve shipped millions of pounds of carp to China, but the margins are just too slim.

“I bet we’ve had 30 or 40 Chinese customers come through here and they’re going to buy every fish we can produce and everything…and they would if you give them to ‘em, but they’re not going to allow you to make any money.”

Fishermen are paid about 15 cents a pound for Asian carp, and many ecologists warn that building an industry based on an invasive species might only further establish the carp in American rivers.

But Ben Allen of American Heartland fish says he expects to not only control the population of carp, but ultimately beat it back.

“We want to move these fish out of the river.  And we’re going to attract people that have large boats and want to go out and work hard and bring in a lot of weight.”

In addition to selling the carp as food, Allen says new rendering patents will also allow his company to tap into the booming markets for fishmeal, used in animal feed and Omega-3 fish oil.

For the Environment Report, I’m Adam Allington.

What if Asian Carp Make a Home Here? (Part 4)

  • Silver carp (top) and bighead carp (bottom) are easy to confuse. (Photo courtesy of Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee)

Some places in the Great Lakes might be better for Asian carp than others…

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Let’s take a second and play a game.

When I say “Asian carp” what’s the very first thing you think of?

Maybe… it’s this:

“They’re jumpin’ pretty good, look at that!  Ohhh that one may have hurt… Ohhh!”

Those are silver carp.  They’re the jumpers.  And if there are a lot of them packed in shoulder to shoulder in a river channel… it can be dangerous.

Duane Chapman is a leading carp expert. He’s with the U.S. Geological Survey in Missouri. 

“They’ve hurt a lot of people – I’ve been hurt by them – I’ve seen a couple of broken jaws, people have been knocked off boats.”

Asian carp were imported to the U.S. in the 1970’s and used in research ponds and fish farms.  At some point, they escaped, and they’ve been making their way up the Mississippi River system ever since.

The question that’s on a lot of people’s minds now, is what will happen if Asian carp get established in the Great Lakes. 

John Dettmers is a senior fishery biologist with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.  He’s also one of the authors of a new peer-reviewed risk assessment.

“The risk of Asian carp establishing themselves and having measureable consequences to Great Lakes fish and aquatic communities is pretty high especially in Lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie.  A little bit less of a risk in Lake Ontario and a bit less risk than that in Lake Superior.”

Scientists are the most concerned about bighead and silver carp.  Both species eat plankton.  Those are tiny plants and animals at the base of the food chain that a lot of other things like to eat.

Duane Chapman with the USGS also worked on the risk assessment.  He says between 1995 and 2000, three bighead carp were caught in Lake Erie.

“Those fish were extremely robust. They were very fat.”

Biologists think those three carp were put in the lake intentionally… and Chapman says there’s no evidence yet that there’s a reproducing population in Lake Erie.

But he says Lake Erie would be very well suited for carp, and especially the western part of the lake because there’s a lot of plankton there.

“That would be better habitat than just about any place in the Great Lakes for Asian carp growth.  It also tends to be habitat for important fishes like walleye and yellow perch. That’s a little bit scary.”

He says there could also be some negative impacts on salmon at certain stages of their lives.

Other fish experts have questioned how well carp would do in the Great Lakes.

Gerald Smith is a professor emeritus in the Museum of Zoology at the University of Michigan.  He was not involved in the new risk assessment.  He says he agrees with the report overall… but:

“I think they left out the importance of predators.  All carp start out as eggs, juveniles or larvae. They have to grow up through a food chain that includes more large predators than Asian carp face anywhere else in the world.”

He says it’s uncertain how well little carp would do against those predators.

Duane Chapman says baby Asian carp might be able to escape a lot of those predators. He says there are many shallow wetlands in the Great Lakes region where baby carp could hide.

All of the scientists made a point of saying that we should keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.  And Duane Chapman says… even if a few carp do turn up down the line… it’s not time to give up.

“I want to make it real clear that there’s a sense you get a couple of fish, a male and a female, and it’s game over. That’s absolutely not the case.”

He says typically in a big system like the Great Lakes, it takes a large number of fish to establish a reproducing population. So he says it makes sense to try to keep the numbers of carp in the Lakes low.

Special thanks to Long Haul Productions for their jumping carp audio.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Our series wraps up tomorrow with a look at people who are trying to make some money by selling carp. 

Other Pathways for Asian Carp (Part 3)

  • The 8 foot tall fence at Eagle Marsh is intended to keep adult Asian carp from swimming toward Lake Erie during floods. (Photo by Mercedes Mejia/Michigan Radio)

Today, we continue our week-long series on Asian carp and the Great Lakes.

Most of the efforts to keep bighead and silver carp out of the Great Lakes are focused on the shipping canals in the Chicago area.  But there are other ways the carp could get into the Great Lakes.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking at more than a dozen other possible watery routes carp could take.

A couple weeks ago, I went to see the site that many scientists consider the 2nd highest risk pathway for carp.  It’s a sleepy little place called Eagle Marsh.  It’s more than 700 acres and it’s bone dry right now, with not a carp in sight.

So it’s a little strange when you first see the 8 foot tall chain-link fence. It stretches from one side of Eagle Marsh to the other.

“This fence is designed to stop Asian carp but as you can see when you pan around and look at the rest of this fence the fence is built on dry ground.”

Doug Keller is with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

“This is an area that floods when the Wabash and Maumee systems, they can flood together, and this is the area they flood together and this is the potential pathway that Asian carp can move from the Wabash River up toward the Maumee River.”

Keller says there are bighead carp about 20 river miles away from this marsh in the Wabash River.  The concern is – if carp get into the Maumee River, they could swim right to Lake Erie.  

“There have been many people that have assessed the risk of Asian carp getting into the Great Lakes system, and certainly should they get into Lake Erie almost any expert would agree that’s probably the place in the Great Lakes they would do the best.”

This fence is a temporary barrier. It was built to block adult carp from getting through… but not baby carp. 

“Any fish that’s probably six inches or less, of any kind of fish, is going to be able to slide right through this fence, but the juvenile Asian carp live in backwater areas.  So they’re going to hatch and go off into those backwater areas in the middle and lower Wabash River and they’re going to be 100 miles, easy, from here.”

Keller says even if Asian carp laid eggs in the upper Wabash River… those eggs would get sent on a 60 mile drift downstream, far from this spot in Eagle Marsh.

So far, the fence has lived up to at least one big test. 

Betsy Yankowiak is the Director of Preserves and Programs at the Little River Wetlands Project. Her group is one of the owners of Eagle Marsh, and they have a contract to inspect and maintain the carp fence.  She says a year ago in May there was so much rain, she had to take a canoe out to the fence.

“When we got out there, these common carp were swimming on both sides of the fence and I got out of the canoe, and I have my big knee-high boots on but still, common carp mouths… and they were floating around by my feet and I was like oh, man.”

Common carp have been in the U.S. since the late 1800’s… so they’re not the kind of carp they’re trying to stop here.

But Yankowiak says she’s keeping an eye on the carp fence… just in case any bighead or silver carp make a run for it in the future.

“If Asian carp cross, it’s on me. So I want to make sure we’re doing the best job we possibly can.”

But even if the carp fence works… or the carp never get close to Eagle Marsh… biologists say there are other ways carp could get into the Great Lakes.

People still move live Asian carp around the region even though it’s illegal. It’s possible those fish could get into the Lakes.

And… experts say baby Asian carp look a lot like bait fish called gizzard shad… so fishermen could release them accidentally.

Our series continues tomorrow with a look at what might happen if carp get comfortable in the Great Lakes. 

Industries Worry About Basin Separation (Part 2)

  • A sightseeing boat on Lake Michigan near Chicago. Barge and tour boat operators, among other businesses and industries, are concerned about proposals to permanently separate the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River system. (Photo by Rebecca Williams/Michigan Radio)

The issue of keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes has implications for a variety of industries.  Midwest officials are weighing a range of options, including severing the connection between the Mississippi River and Great Lakes basins.  In the second part of our series on Asian carp, Adam Allington examines the potential economic implications for keeping the carp out of the lakes now, and in the future:

It’s a scorching hot day in East St. Louis, Illinois.  Down by the Mississippi River a tugboat is pushing a flotilla of six light green barges. This 70-mile stretch of river is one of the busiest inland ports in America—a place where grain, aggregate and steel are loaded and shipped up and down the river.

“We operate about 200 barges in all parts of the inland waterways, anything that’s connected to the Mississippi.”

Mark Fletcher runs Ceres Barge Lines.  At any point roughly a quarter of his business is tied up moving freight in and around the Chicago area.  As far as he’s concerned, any carp mitigation strategy that closes or slows shipping on the Chicago canals would be a disaster for his business.

“It would affect us terrifically and it affects the whole industry terrifically because you’ve got so much tonnage that does move up the Illinois River trying to get into the steel mills of Burns Harbor, Indiana, Indiana Harbor, south of Chicago.”

In addition to impacts on manufacturing and shipping, Fletcher says one barge can hold the equivalent of 60 semi-trucks or 40 rail cars.

Mark Biel is the Director of the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois.  He says closing the Chicago canals would add roughly a half million more trucks to roads and freeways, posing a real threat to the environment.

“Particularly when it comes to some of the petroleum products and chemical products, the safest way to move those products is to move them by barge.  In many cases you don’t want to put them on rail cars or put them on trucks and then move them through neighborhoods.  The preferable way to move this product safely is to move it through the barge.”

But severing the physical connection of the Great Lakes to the Illinois and Mississippi rivers isn’t necessarily an “either-or” scenario for industry.

Tim Eder is the Director of the Great Lakes Commission.  The best solution, he says, would make it impossible for Asian carp to move upriver but would also provide a workaround for cargo.

“It would be a physical structure in the water, it would be a land bridge made out of concrete and earth.  It would include a terminal, where barge traffic would meet on either side of the barrier.  There could be superfast unloading elevators and cranes that moved goods from one side of the barrier to the other.”

The Army Corps of Engineers is set to deliver a progress report to Congress in mid-October, including a ballpark cost for basin separation.

Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow says anything less than basin separation is a non-starter, but she’s also confident that a workable solution in within reach.

“We have, in fact, a $7 billion fishing industry and a $16 billion boating industry in the Great Lakes.  But we know that there are other important commercial interests and we need to make sure we find a solution that works for both.”

Still, no matter what the Army Corps recommends, some say the issue of carp getting into the lakes may ultimately have nothing to do with infrastructure.

Michael Borgstrom is the President of Wendella Sightseeing, which has had boats on the Chicago River for over 75 years.

“I just don’t know where the urgency is.  I mean, they’re all over the country so… there’s other ways for them to get into the lakes as well.”

Borgstrom thinks the true threat of carp getting into the lakes won’t hinge on barriers, but rather the very real possibility of humans simply taking live carp and dropping it in the lake.

For the Environment Report, I’m Adam Allington.

Tomorrow, we’ll hear about ways carp could get into the Great Lakes besides the Chicago shipping canals. 

Asian Carp & the Great Lakes: Separating the Basins (Part 1)

  • The way things were, circa 1900 (before the construction of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal). (Image courtesy of the Great Lakes Commission)

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Earlier this spring… the Obama administration ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to speed up a five-year study of options to block invasive Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes.  Many biologists say the best solution would be complete separation of the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River watershed.  But as Adam Allington reports in the first story of our five-part series, basin separation comes with its own multi-billion dollar price tag… and it would require re-plumbing the entire City of Chicago:

This story begins with a nice round number, and that number is 1900… the year the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was complete. 

Back then, the canal’s opening was touted as one of the biggest civil engineering feats of the industrial age—significant, for completely reversing the flow of the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan and taking all the sewage from the city of Chicago with it.

Over 100 years later, that canal is still doing the same job.

“On any given day, depending on the time of year, approximately 60-80 percent of the volume of the Chicago River is treated municipal wastewater.”

Dave Wethington is a Project Manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  He’s charged with completing the Corps recommendations to Congress for keeping Asian carp out of the lakes now, and in the future.

“The Corps believes we have the issue of Asian carp dealt with appropriately at this point in time.  It’s a very complex challenge that we’re looking at because of the multiple uses of that system.” 

In addition to storm and wastewater, Wethington says the canals are also important shipping routes moving freight in and out of Chicago and the Great Lakes. 

He says an electric barrier located 30 miles downstream is keeping the carp out of the Chicago canals, and breeding populations haven’t been detected within 100 miles.

Still, samples taken this summer on Lake Calumet, a mere 6 miles from Lake Michigan, did test positive for Asian carp DNA.

“It’s a warning sign that Asian carp are present in the system.”

Tim Eder is the Director of the Great Lakes Commission, based in Ann Arbor.  He says the tests are proof the electric barrier isn’t working.

“Whether they’re a live fish present on the wrong side of the barrier now, or whether they will be at some point in the future, I think it’s a warning sign that we’ve got to take this very seriously and move with the utmost haste.”

Eder says best solution for keeping carp out of the lakes is complete hydrologic separation of the Mississippi and Great Lakes basins. 

But doing that won’t come cheap, with some estimates running as high as $4 billion.   John Goss is the so-called “Asian Carp Czar” appointed by the White House to coordinate the federal response to the carp threat.

“In the current budget situation, with the federal government, the State of Illinois and the other states don’t have a lot of funding to contribute.  So certainly, if hydrologic separation is the only solution, then that requires finding the funding.”

BRAMMEIER: “Talking in billions for major infrastructure projects that impact the lives of tens of millions of people is not out of the ordinary.” 

Joel Brammeier is the President of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.  He says protecting the multi-billion dollar Great Lakes fishing and tourism industry is too important to risk on half-measures, which themselves cost hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

“Whether the carp are 100, 50, 20 miles from Lake Michigan, the right solution is the same, and that’s separating these two systems.  So we don’t have to worry about this anymore and so we don’t have to keep dumping millions of dollars into temporary fixes that aren’t going to solve the problem.” 

The Army Corps is not set to deliver its list of options to Congress until the end of next year. Yet to be determined is how a permanent barrier would impact shipping and water treatment, and who would pay for it.

For the Environment Report, I’m Adam Allington.

Tomorrow, we’ll hear what concerns industry groups have about separating the basins.