Professor proposes invasive species research center for U

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 6, 2012 - 7:25 AM

Carp expert told legislators foreign critters are destroying Minnesota's environment and outdoor heritage.

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University of Minnesota professor Peter Sorensen testified before the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee on the need for a war against invasive species.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Beating back invasive species with boat inspections, dams or bubble barriers only buys time at best, a University of Minnesota professor told a legislative panel on Thursday.

Instead, he said, let's outthink 'em.

That was fisheries researcher and carp expert Peter Sorensen's message to the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee when he recommended that a world-class invasive species research center be developed at the U to study not only how to keep leaping carp, clinging zebra mussels and other weird critters out of the state but also how to get rid of those already here.

"Every species has a weakness,'' he said. "Nothing is perfect. We need to find weaknesses and target them.''

Invasive species are destroying the state's environment and outdoor heritage, he said.

"This is a war, not a battle. You can expect a continued stream of these things.''

Under his proposal, the research center would be housed at the university's College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources Sciences. The idea would be to do research in Minnesota to solve Minnesota's problems. With a director, three researchers, three research associates and graduate students, he estimated it would cost about $1.3 million a year, plus an additional $750,000 in start-up costs.

Sorensen suggested the money could come from state lottery or Legacy Amendment proceeds or other state sources and possibly also from private industry.

'A silver bullet'

"I think it's a good idea,'' said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, chairman of the committee. "We have to do something. Obviously cost is an issue, but we can't just keep dumping money into fish barriers. We're going to have to come up with a silver bullet.''

Increasing boat-license fees and out-of-state fishing licenses could be other revenue sources, Ingebrigtsen said. If anything, he said, the proposal may not be ambitious enough.

Dick Osgood, an aquatic ecologist and executive director of the Lake Minnetonka Association, likes the idea too, but he said a $1.3 million annual budget for invasive species research "seems puny. The need is certainly larger than that.''

Sorensen has for years conducted research on controlling or ridding lakes of common carp, an early invasive species plaguing many Minnesota's waters. He has had some success. But the success scientists have achieved in reducing the sea lamprey, another invasive species, in the Great Lakes gives him hope that solutions can be found to control Minnesota's waters or rid them of invasive species. Using chemicals, barriers and traps, sea lamprey numbers have fallen 90 percent since the 1950s.

Meanwhile, the invasive species will do a lot of damage in Minnesota, Sorensen said. Zebra mussels could alter ecosystems, affecting game fish. And more invaders are on their way, including the northern snakehead fish -- sometimes called the "Frankenfish" because it is voracious, grows up to 3 feet and can survive several days out of water.

"Conventional approaches don't work,'' Sorensen said. "It's time to get serious about this.''

DNR sees merit

A research center could potentially develop poisons, parasites or even genetically engineered diseases that would attack the invasive species.

Steve Hirsch, Department of Natural Resources director of ecological and water services, said Sorensen's proposal has merit. The DNR would work closely with a research center.

"This would have nationwide significance,'' Hirsch said. He said that some invasive species research is being undertaken elsewhere but that doing more locally likely would be beneficial.

He agreed with Sorensen that deterrent barriers aren't 100 percent effective, "but they would buy us some time while we develop better control methods,'' he said. The DNR intends to conduct a research symposium in March to gather researchers who are working on Asian carp to determine what research is being done.

Sorensen's proposal says efforts to control invasive species are stalled by a lack of local resources and expertise. DNR managers "are restricted to imperfect technologies developed at other locations for other reasons,'' he wrote in his proposal.

"This is a critical issue that the state must address, because if we do not help ourselves, no one else will.''

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