Big fish threaten our Great Lakes
Written by The Kalamazoo Gazette   
Wednesday, 19 July 2006 12:17

It almost sounds too fantastic to be true: A 4-foot, 100-pound fish that is so aggressive it has been known to jump into boats, so ravenous it consumes up to 40 percent of its own body weight in plankton each day, so prolific that areas of the Illinois River near Chicago are literally teeming with them.

Over the years, our beautiful Great Lakes have sustained the presence of unwanted species such as the zebra mussel, the round goby and the smelly alewives.

But this monstrous Asian carp is something else.
And it poses a major threat to Michigan -- not only to the ecology of the Great Lakes but also to the region's economy.

Asian carp were brought to the United States from China more than 10 years ago to help keep catfish ponds clear of parasites. They escaped these fish farms during flooding in Mississippi and invaded the Upper Mississippi River system.

These carp are big eaters. They are ``filter feeders'' that consume plankton that would normally be eaten by juvenile minnows, walleyes, blue gill and bass. And they grow to about three times the size of a big king salmon, which is an important part of Michigan's $4.5 billion sports-fishing industry.

Asian carp end up pushing out weaker, native species. They have the potential to damage or destroy the habitat for other fish, ruin the big lake's ecology, find their way into the other Great Lakes and eventually devastate the fishing industry.

Kurt Hettiger, a senior aquarist at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, went out on a boat on the Illinois River about 200 miles southwest of Chicago to collect the carp for an exhibit. He was dismayed by what he saw.

``It was sort of devastating to see how many of these fish there were in a small area,'' he said. ``In some areas, where you sort of start crowding them in, the water is literally erupting with these fish. It's sadly amazing.''

These fish are currently being denied access to Lake Michigan by a permanent electric barrier that gives them a jolt if they try to swim through it. It appears to be working, yet it seems flimsy protection against 100-pound fish that can leap into boats and break out of fish farms.

We must ensure that the Asian carp never get any closer.

We have such a treasure in this state, home to the world's largest surface freshwater system and 3,288 miles of coastline. That unique ecosystem and the state's economic health go hand in hand.

We need to creatively combine the state's environmental advantages with its pressing economic concerns so that efforts to restore fish and wildlife could create more jobs and spark more industry while protecting our natural resources. It can be done.

Historically, Michigan's economic prosperity has been connected to abundant natural resources, such as its forests and its plentiful supply of water.

Emily Green, director of the Sierra Club's Great Lakes program, said, ``We need to move from a rustbelt economy that is aging in this region to a new waterbelt economy that can carry us into the future.''

We like the sound of that.


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