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The Irony of Carp

May 30, 2012Patrick NunnallyUncategorizedComments Off on The Irony of Carp

Although irony may be thought of as the “trope of our times” (and don’t get me started down THAT road!) it’s often tough to find irony when faced with an urgent threat to a valuable place like the Mississippi River.  Irony requires the ability to step back, reflect, ask “what are we really doing here,” while the Asian carp threat brings out a tremendous sense of urgency and the imperative to stop talking and DO SOMETHING.

So I really perked up a couple of weeks ago when Brian Ickes of the U.S. Geological Survey showed a slide titled “The Great Irony of the Leaping Dragon Fish.”  Ickes’ talk, which was a featured part of the National Park Service’s Mississippi River Forum Workshop on May 18, was listed as “Insights from both sides of the planet” concerning Asian carp.

The talk is undoubtedly the best thing on the subject that I have ever seen.  Go ahead, download it immediately from the web site linked above.  I’ll wait.

There, you’re back now.  Why is this such a good piece?  First, the talk is grounded in up-to-date data, and lots of it.  Want to know where the “four famous Chinese carp” have been found in North America as of a week ago (now 3 weeks ago)?  Look at the maps on slide five.  Or look at slide 37 for a map of the “invasion front.”

Second, Ickes gets outside our understandable provincialism with regard to Asian carp and their looming threat as they come up the Mississippi.  The river is an important global resource, as well as central to national transportation and ecological systems, and is the “front door” to a couple of dozen communities.  The four Asian carp species making their way upriver pose a perhaps-existential threat to human use and enjoyment of the Mississippi above St. Louis.  But on the Yangtze River, a bigger river than the Mighty Miss by nearly any measure, is seeing the near-disappearance of these carp species, which is a serious if not catastrophic development.

Finally, we get to the irony part.  Ickes notes that perhaps the largest and densest wild population of carp is likely the waters of the Illinois River, where not only are the fish not wanted, but where they would not have been able to survive until the past few decades because pollution rendered the water more or less uninhabitable.

And then he gives us this jewel of a sentence:

“We are trying to keep invasive Chinese carps out of the Great Lakes, to protect an invasive (yet purposefully stocked) Pacific salmon fishery, which was stocked as a management tool to control hyper-abundant alewifes, another invasive fish species, because the native piscivore, the Lake Trout, was nearly wiped out by another invasive species, the sea lamprey, because people built the Welland Canal around Niagara Falls to promote intercontinental shipping deep into the Great Lakes basin.”

Talk about unintended/unanticipated consequences!

And this is why Ickes’ talk is so important:  in our rush to address the “crisis” posed by advancing Asian carp species, we must be mindful that our work has consequences, some of which must be anticipated.  What do we really do when we propose development of a “silver bullet” poison that will kill Asian carp and (allegedly) not harm native species?  If we successfully introduce predator fish such as the alligator gar as “carp control,” as is being attempted farther downstream, then what will be appropriate “gar control”?

Ickes does not pretend to have all the answers, but the last dozen slides or so should be “required reading” for anyone seriously interested in the carp question.  The section is titled “what do we know and how do we know it,” and I won’t attempt to summarize it here.  Suffice it to say that the right response to the problem of invasive carps is not strictly a matter of science, or of policy, or of engagement with the community.  We have to know more through scientific research, adjust our policy frameworks so that knowledge can be applied in the right ways, and both speak to and learn from the public for whom, ultimately, we are working.

And in that regard, the necessity of engaging all three threads of river management, the Asian carp “crisis” may simply be a harbinger of things to come.

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