Yesterday’s news that a reproducing population of Asian carp had been identified in the Great Lakes watershed was greeted with dismay across a wide variety of news platforms.
The four fish, caught in the Sandusky River in Ohio, all contained biological indicators that they had spent their entire lives in that river, and had not come from a fish farm or originated elsewhere and been accidentally transported to the Sandusky.
What does this discovery mean? Turns out, it can be seen to have several meanings.
As reported in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, US Geological Survey specialist Duane Chapman says the discovery makes the job of controlling the invasive fish more difficult, but not impossible.
Several sources have noted that grass carp such as the ones identified this week aren’t as big a threat to the Great Lakes ecosystem as silver and bighead carp. Silver carp, the “jumpers” that are so famous via YouTube, and bighead carp outcompete native species for food, causing vast disruptions to aquatic food chains. Grass carp, while damaging, are primarily of concern because they damage underwater vegetation.
Nevertheless, as Prairie Rivers Network argues, the presence of a reproducing population of any of the Asian carps anywhere in the Great Lakes watershed means that it’s time to accelerate action to block the others from gaining such a foothold.
A week ago, the Freshwater Society and the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota sponsored the most recent lecture in the Moos Family Lecture Series, highlighting challenges to water issues in the region. Dr. Duane Chapman spoke on “The Biology and Management of Asian Carps: Lessons for Minnesota.”
Not surprisingly, the lessons were mixed, although the news coverage in MinnPost.com and other online sources led with optimism, “Asian carp can be controlled,” for example. That much is certainly true; Chapman made the point very clearly that the carps are not an unstoppable force of Armageddon inexorably moving north and threatening to undo decades of work making our rivers attractive and accessible.
Which is by no means to say that we should stop our vigilance against the invasive fish. Wherever populations have become established, very substantial changes to the aquatic ecology have followed. The changes have been different in rivers from lakes, and vary by species of carp and the part of the previous ecosystem that has been most affected. But make no mistake: the carps that are coming are trouble, and we need to continue policy efforts, research agendas, and communication campaigns to prepare for their coming.
Chapman’s lecture, and the panel discussion that followed, were both well worth hearing, and if you missed the event last week, you’re in luck because the Freshwater Society has a video of the talk and slides available on its web site. Some of my key takeaways, which should by no means be understood as a complete sense of the argument, included:
- we need to know a lot more about the biology of these fish, the physical environment (water temperature, speed, bed surfaces) they live in, and the ecology around them (what eats them? what do they eat?);
- these subjects aren’t rocket science; they’re much harder, because there are so many moving parts, all of which adjust as other conditions adjust;
- some of the four carps species can probably arrive in the Twin Cities river environments (which include the Mississippi, Minnesota, and St. Croix rivers), and can probably survive, but the capacity to reproduce and establish a reproducing population is quite unknown at this time;
- the carps seem to require floodplain lakes as habitats where the juveniles grow the most. These lakes would thus seem to be good places to target anti-carps measures;
- we don’t know if areas of the Minnesota River upstream of the Twin Cities might be more susceptible to them than the Twin Cities itself. In other words, the Mississippi River in Pool 2 (St. Paul to Hastings) might not be a good place for them to get established, but they may be able to pass through Pool 2 and establish damaging populations in the Minnesota River, which comes into the Mississippi near the MSP airport;
- south of here, in the Illinois River where carp infestations have become legendary on YouTube, hundreds of thousands of fish are removed every day by commercial fishermen. This effort seems to be having some results, as the average size of the fish being taken has gotten smaller.
- We have some time in Minnesota to be working on this, and now is the time to be working. If we wait until they’re a problem, then the damage is done. (My emphasis).
A good place to learn what individuals can do in the Asian carps struggle is the web site of the Stop Carp Coalition, The federal government, which has a number of agencies working on various aspects of the problem has a web site clearinghouse of information, but that site is unfortunately unavailable right now because of the government shutdown.
Dennis Anderson is the outdoors writer for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and therefore has a pretty big pulpit from which to convey his views. After all, Minnesota is a state that voted extra taxes on itself in 2008 in part to preserve and enhance the legacies of clean water, fishing and hunting, parks and the arts. Lots of people read Anderson’s work, and the “hook and bullet” audience is not always exactly coinciding in its views with urban environmentalists. But that’s a whole other story.
Last Sunday, Anderson’s column profiled a farmer in southeastern Minnesota who has made water quality one of his primary concerns in farm management decisions. The article is interesting in no small part because of the insight it sheds on the details of decision-making by someone who actually owns land and has to make decisions about how to balance the competing urgencies he faces.
Too often, the debates about water quality on the Mississippi are reduced to caricature: “farmers have to be made to comply with clean water rules because they won’t do it voluntarily” or “urban environmentalists have no idea what it takes to feed the world.” The truth, as usual, lies uncomfortably somewhere between these easy positions.
Anderson says his piece is part of an ongoing effort to document the work of conservation-minded farmers. I would like to second his call: let me know of farmers or programs that are working to help farmers improve water quality. Either send me an email or, better yet, write a comment to this post. We’ll work to get the word out because clear thinking about concrete specific examples is one important way to get past the abstraction and generality of “farmer vs. environmentalist” where clean water is concerned.
Last week I posted about the need for better, more nuanced, thinking on the issue of whether or not to close navigation locks on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis to guard against the spread of Asian carp. Well, I’m quite sure that the editors at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune weren’t listening to me, but they did publish a story last week that gave considerable breadth and complexity to the issue.
Some points of particular note:
- Congresswoman Betty McCollum of St. Paul is lukewarm in her support of Minneapolis lock closure as the primary response to the threat from carp. If the response to the threat is just closing Minneapolis locks, that strategy essentially concedes St. Paul’s stretch of the river to the invasive fish. McCollum’s preferred plan, also in a proposed bill, would undertake a more comprehensive research and policy analysis that would attempt to thwart carp as far downstream as possible,
- The potential for lock closure in Minneapolis is being watched closely by people monitoring the advance of Asian carp up the Illinois River toward Chicago and the Great Lakes. There, a pitched battle is being fought in courts, in industry and Congressional offices, and in the “court of public opinion” about the question of “re-reversing” the Chicago River and establishing a permanent physical barrier to the carp. The Minneapolis bill attempts to sidestep the controversial proposal to close locks on the basis of threats from carp by tying lock closure to traffic counts. If the traffic through St. Anthony Falls locks drops below a certain volume, then the process to close the locks would start. These locks are at the head of the system, so while there would be some impact on jobs and on transportation alternatives (more trucks on the region’s highways, for example) that impact would be much lighter than closing locks farther downstream
- There’s an urban design and community development angle to the issue as well. One of the industries upstream of St. Anthony Falls that uses the locks is the city’s Upper Harbor Terminal. For a number of years now city staff have been studying the terminal site, and believe that redevelopment of the site would be more in line with the city’s economic and community development strategies
Complexities abound, and this dispute is a long way from being over. Still, the step reported last week–inclusion of lock closure provisions in a federal water resource development bill–represents the strongest effort yet to fight the carp battle by creating a permanent physical barrier on the Mississippi River.
A week ago, the editorial board of the Minneapolis Star Tribune published a remarkably focused argument that the locks at St. Anthony Falls near downtown should be closed, lest invasive Asian carp get through, endangering the state’s lucrative and important tourism and recreational fishing industries. Most observers of the carp battle were pleased with this development.
But not all. This week, the paper published an op-ed commentary from the deputy for programs and project management at the St. Paul District, Army Corps of Engineers. She asserted–argued would be too strong a word–that Asian carp would not be a threat to the northern waters of the state because there are a couple of other dams above St. Anthony, and besides, the state’s famed Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness isn’t even in the watershed. Calling for “relevant facts and good science,” she argued that essentially we all need to work together.
Indeed we do. But we have to have better ways to make points and engage in discussions of important matters of public policy than just saying “I have additional facts, so your argument is wrong.” In fact, the science has not yet told us the likelihood of carp surmounting some dams, and the northern Minnesota watersheds are so complex that boundaries should be considered extremely porous to aquatic invasive species.
Fortunately, clearer thinking (necessary but not sufficient for answers to complex questions) is at hand. The Freshwater Society and the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota are holding a public lecture on the carp problem in early October.
Duane Chapman, a research biologist who is an expert on Asian carp, will give a free public lecture on Tuesday, Oct. 8, in St. Paul.
His lecture, titled “The Biology and Management of Asian Carp: Lessons for Minnesota,” is sponsored by the Freshwater Society, the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences, the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center, and the university’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.
The lecture will be at 7 p.m. in the Student Center theater on the university’s St. Paul campus.
Learn more and register to attend at www.freshwater.org.
Suppose for a minute that you knew there was a mortal threat to your livelihood, if not your life, encroaching street by street, block by block, coming inexorably toward you. You don’t know where the threat is right now, but you know it’s out there somewhere.
- Work with neighbors to create a deterrent fence or some other protective structure on your block.
- Put up your deterrent structure on your property, because, after all, the neighbors aren’t that easy to work with and some of them don’t think this is much of a threat anyway.
- Reinforce your front door, but leave your front yard unguarded, because, really, your yard is a pretty cool place, but the real safety and value is in your house.
- Don’t worry about your yard or house, but reinforce your bedroom door, figuring that any money spent defending yourself prior to your “last stand” is money wasted.
If the mortal threat in this little scenario is the Asian carps that are coming up the Mississippi River, voraciously outcompeting local native fish (like walleyes) for food and wrecking the ecosystem, to say nothing of their You Tube-documented habit of jumping into the air when alarmed, then it appears the State of Minnesota may have chosen Option 4 above. Sure, the DNR is putting money into studies of the state’s “front yard” waters, and thinking about drawing the line against carp in the Twin Cities. But as this article from the Minneapolis Star Tribune makes clear, the money actually being spent on deterrance is north of the city, at the Coon Rapids Dam. The Coon Rapids Dam may be the “last defense” against the invasive fish before they get upstream into northern Minnesota, potentially threatening a state fishery and tourism industry that has been estimated at between $7 and $11 billion in annual value.
So why are we only reinforcing the last line of defense? Long time observers of the Coon Rapids Dam controversy might argue that this whole thing started years ago, when local agencies debated who would pay to upgrade and maintain the deteriorating century-old structure. Local park districts didn’t want to invest in it. Why not take the dam down and let the river run free? Well, a couple of hundred homeowners who have property stretching a few miles upriver would then have mud flats for their front yard, instead of an impounded, lake-like Mississippi River, provided for them by taxpayers across the state of Minnesota.
So we have $16 million being invested in the 100 year old dam, with Asian carps used as the rationale for preserving the dam and the amenity of the lake.
We ought to be able to do better than this.
An article by Doug Smith in Sunday’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune discusses the increasing complexity of some of the problems that concern the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. It’s not enough any more just to try to figure out of to provide enough walleyes for all the fishermen in the state. Instead, land use change and habitat loss, overuse of water resources (see Josephine Marcotty’s fine article sounding the alarm on diminished water in the state), pending climate change, all are issues that require new, more complex thinking and awareness of the state’s interconnected resource systems. Read more →
It’s pretty well known that the Mississippi River in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area is polluted (“impaired” is the technical term) with sediment, excess nutrients, and, most likely, other bad stuff. This week there has been a flurry of attention to one of the components of that “other bad stuff” category. Read more →
Last week was a busy time, both on the Mississippi River itself and in the various places where river-oriented science, policy, and community engagement take place. As is our usual practice, we follow Mark Gorman of the Northeast-Midwest Institute for connections to conversations we want to “listen in on.” Here are some of the links posted @NEMWIUpperMiss: Read more →
Most of the e-chatter on the Mississippi River these days is about dropping water levels and threats to navigation. But last week the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources made an important announcement concerning efforts to stymie the encroachment of Asian carp up the river. As reported here and elsewhere, the DNR is recommending that a sound-and-light barrier be constructed at Lock and Dam #1 (Ford Dam) between Minneapolis and St. Paul. The barrier would not be 100% effective (nothing except permanently closing the lock would be 100% effective) but it would be comparable to the electric barriers now in place on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship canal. DNR officials expect that the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and manages the lock, would be very reluctant to allow the electronic barrier, if they did not prohibit it outright.