Researchers target invasive species
Written by LaCrosse Tribune   
Tuesday, 03 February 2009 21:36
For years, wildlife officials have struggled to control invasive species without harming the native ones.

Researchers on French Island have identified a weapon they believe could help shift the tide.

A delivery mechanism developed by a Maryland biotech company could be used to target unwelcome fish such as silver carp, the giant flying fish that has taken over the Illinois River and turned up last month in the Mississippi River at La Crosse.

Now they need time and money to study whether it will work.

It’s been nearly four decades since Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, clogged with industrial waste, last caught fire. Federal controls enacted in the 1970s reduced the chemical pollutants in the nation’s waterways.

Today, the most dangerous pollution is biological — in the form of invasive species.

“Now what we have is fires burning below the surface,” said Mike Hoff, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Fort Snelling, Minn.

When water burns, people notice. But when pollution swims, public concern is harder to muster.

Hoff coordinates the aquatic invasives program for an eight-state region that includes the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River basin and has worked on invasives since 1975.

“We’ve done a very good job of cleaning up our surface waters,” Hoff said. “What we haven’t done very well is to prevent the introduction of non-native species.

“A lot of people look out on the water. They have no idea what’s happening underneath.”

More than 6,500 non-native species — fish, insects, mammals and reptiles — have established populations in the U.S. Invasive fish alone are blamed for $137 billion a year in costs.

In the Great Lakes, 186 non-native species have established populations, Hoff said; another 50 are expected to become established.

Pests such as the zebra mussel and sea lamprey have long since worn out their welcome.

Resource managers such as the Great Lakes Commission and the Mississippi River Citizens Commission have identified invasive species as the most serious problem they face.

Silver and bighead carp first were imported in the early 1970s to control algae in fish farms. They escaped and have established populations in much of the lower Mississippi River basin. In December, both were discovered in the Mississippi River near La Crosse.

Their arrival is cause for concern, officials say. Federal and state governments have spent millions building barriers to keep them out of the Great Lakes.

In just 10 years after they first were found in the Illinois River, these giant carp have become the dominant species, and they account for more than 90 percent of the fish in parts of the lower Mississippi, according to the USGS.

Silver carp can weigh more than 60 pounds and are known for leaping out of the water when excited by the vibrations of propellers. They can jump more than a yard into the air, making them a hazard for anyone riding in an open boat.

Biologist Terry Hubert leads the invasive species team at the Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center on French Island. He recalls being on the Illinois River during a carp roundup.

When he looked behind his boat, he saw three dozen carp in the air.

Thus far, the most effective control efforts have focused on containment. Once a species finds its way into new waters, it’s hard to get rid of. Unlike chemical pollutants, new species don’t degrade over time.

Poisons kill them, but they also affect desirable native fish such as walleye.

“Once they’re here, it’s very difficult to eliminate them,” Hoff said.

‘A silver bullet’

Last summer, Mark Gaikowski was at a conference in Montana where he saw a presentation by a Maryland biotech company called Advanced BioNutrition on how they were using an encapsulation technology called MicroMatrix to vaccinate salmon.

Developed in 2002, the process allows the vaccine to be incorporated in a “matrix” designed to pass through the stomach — where acids would destroy the vaccine — and release it in the small intestine.

It was a light bulb moment for Gaikowski, a fish researcher at UMESC.

The same technology, he postulated, could be used to package toxicants — such as rotenone and antimycin — so they would affect Asian carp without harming other species.

“It has the potential to be a silver bullet,” said Roz Schnick, a specialist in aquaculture drug approval. “I’ve been involved in fish research for more than 40 years. I’ve never seen anything that could possibly do what this seems to do.”

Proving it will work — and getting approval from the Environmental Protection Agency — could take up to five years, said Mike Jawson, UMESC director.

The study would be a partnership between the government and ABN, a private company that has filed 117 patents in its eight-year history.

Jawson estimates it will cost $2.5 million to $3 million to get the project going and roughly the same each year it continues. If the approach is effective on carp, researchers would like to tailor it to other invaders.

“We would be talking a 10- to 25-year effort,” Jawson said. “There’s always going to be new species ... to worry about.”

The right place

The Upper Midwest Science Center is uniquely suited to conduct the research, Hubert said.

Founded 50 years ago, the center is one of 18 USGS biological research labs. With nearly 50 ponds and raceways, as well as a complex of laboratories on 65 acres of French Island, it was designed with the study of invasives in mind.

“The lab here is a gem that is completely undiscovered,” Schnick said.

Schnick is the national coordinator for aquaculture-new animal drug applications, a position created in 1995 after she retired from a 28-year career at UMESC. An employee of Michigan State University, she helps public research agencies and private companies navigate the testing and approval process. In short, her job is to get new fish drugs on the market.

Schnick is volunteering her time to get funding for the study, since federal agencies cannot lobby Congress.

Worth the price?

U.S. Rep. Ron Kind said he supports the project and believes the government can fund it.

The La Crosse Democrat plans to introduce a bill this year designed to combat invasive species in and around national wildlife refuges. The bill, which passed the house last year but died in the Senate over concerns for feral cats, would authorize grants that could be used for the research.

Though such projects often are the beneficiaries of Congressional earmarks, Kind — who is under a self-imposed moratorium on pork — said there are better, more transparent funding mechanisms.

The price, though high, is worth it, proponents said.

The La Crosse County Conservation Alliance, a coalition of more than two dozen hunting and fishing groups, wrote to Kind and to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Matt Frank in support of the research project.

“This sounds like a lot of money, but what you could potentially lose is a lot more,” Jawson said. “If we lose the recreation on the upper Mississippi, we’ve lost a heck of a lot.”


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