Dennis Anderson: Asian carp invasion closer than you think

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 6, 2011 - 8:37 AM

It's worth taking a couple of specific steps that would provide a better chance to keep the fish from advancing north on the Mississippi and toward Taylors Falls on the St. Croix.

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This early December 2009 photo showed Illinois River Asian carp after being disturbed by sounds of watercraft. Asian carp can reach 4 feet long and weigh up to 100 pounds.

Photo: Illinois River Biological Station via the Detroit Free Press

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Of all problems facing Minnesota, attempting to stop -- or slow -- the Asian carp from further invading the state's waters should be at the top of the list.

The reason: The environmental disaster depicted in the accompanying photograph is closer to becoming a reality for this state than most residents appreciate. 

Worse, there's little coordinated effort among state and federal agencies to slow the advance of these invasive fish, as they seem to swim inexorably up the Mississippi River, intent on destroying the fisheries of Wisconsin and Minnesota -- and the way of life of residents in both states.

Already, reproducing populations of some Asian carp species (which includes grass carp, silver carp, bighead carp and black carp) are in the Mississippi River somewhere north of the Minnesota-Iowa border.

In coming days and weeks, depending on the leadership (or lack thereof) of the Minnesota congressional delegation, Gov. Mark Dayton, the state's legislative kingpins and the Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota will either move forward in attempts to head off Asian carp -- or continue to do nothing.

The stakes couldn't be higher.

At least two actions should be taken:

• Authorize and fund the testing of Mississippi River pools 1-7 for DNA traces of Asian carp. These are the same tests that have been used near Chicago, in attempts to determine whether Asian carp there have escaped through an electric barrier and into Lake Michigan.

Cost estimate: between $10,000 and $50,000, depending on the number of tests done.

• Begin negotiations immediately between the DNR and various federal authorities -- most important the Army Corps of Engineers -- to explore placement of a sound, bubble and light barrier at Prescott, Wis., where the St. Croix River joins the Mississippi.

Purpose of the barrier -- whose protection against Asian carp advancement wouldn't necessarily be absolute -- would be to protect the St. Croix from these fish from Prescott upriver to Taylors Falls for as long as possible, perhaps (with luck) until a biological or other solution to invading Asian carp could be developed.

The barrier also would provide an important testing of the technology in the Mississippi for this specific purpose -- information that doubtless would prove valuable as the fight against Asian carp continues.

Background: Some species of Asian carp were imported as early as the 1960s by government-funded scientists in the South looking to replace chemicals used in aquaculture with, essentially, sewage-eating fish.

Subsequently, during spring floods, the carp escaped Arkansas fish farms and have worked their way upriver. Now they infest not only the Mississippi but the Illinois River, the Ohio and many others.

In Chicago, the big fight -- well publicized -- is over whether the city, the state of Illinois and the federal government are doing enough to thwart the entry of Asian carp into Lake Michigan, and from there into the other Great Lakes.

President Obama has appointed a federal carp czar, but his mission is limited to determining ways that Asian carp -- already in the Mississippi River basin -- can be kept out of the Great Lakes basin. Similarly, an important bill introduced in Congress on Friday, the Stop Asian Carp Act of 2011, specifically concerns keeping Asian carp now in the Mississippi River watershed out of the Great Lakes watershed by physically separating the two -- no small feat.

The important part for Minnesotans:

The Mississippi River has been written off by the federal government (and others) as Asian-carp infested. Never mind that the stretch of the Mississippi that forms Minnesota's border is as yet largely free of these fish. The assumption is infestation will occur eventually, and when it does, scenes such as the one in the accompanying photograph -- featuring jumping silver carp weighing up to 100 pounds -- will be commonplace in Minnesota.

Plankton eaters, silver carp leap from the water en masse when startled by boat motors and other noises. And they're in the food consumption business nearly nonstop, gobbling the same morsels that juvenile game fish -- northerns and walleyes, among others -- require for survival.

• • •

An obvious question: If Asian carp are still somewhere nearer to Iowa than to the Twin Cities, why don't we try to stop them down there?

The Minnesota DNR attempted that some years ago, before the fish migrated north, by proposing that bubbler barriers be placed on the Mississippi below at least one and as many as three Iowa locks. Dams at those locations are high enough, and the landscape abutting them unique enough, that barriers perhaps could have been at least substantively effective against advancing carp.

Congress got on board, directing the Corps of Engineers to study the issue. But no funding was authorized, and without funding the Corps couldn't act. Nor was the Corps open to the DNR's conceptual proposal that the state alone pay for the bubblers.

Since then, everything between Iowa and (depending on how things unfold in coming years) either a rebuilt Coon Rapids dam or perhaps a reconstructed St. Anthony Falls or a retooled Ford Dam has been written off as Asian carp water -- or potential Asian carp water.

The reason: No lock and dam in that long stretch of water is conducive to a bubbler installation.

Meaning the entire Minnesota River watershed to the South Dakota border (and beyond), as well as rivers spilling into the Mississippi from both Minnesota and Wisconsin between Iowa and the Twin Cities, are now vulnerable to Asian carp infestation.

Even a rebuilt Coon Rapids dam -- on the drawing board, looking for funding in the Legislature -- perhaps won't stop Asian carp from entering the Rum and other rivers, and eventually Lake Mille Lacs, in heavy flood years.

At a meeting Thursday in St. Paul attended by the Corps of Engineers, the National Park Service, the city of Minneapolis, the DNR and others concerned with Mississippi River management, some of the approximately 20 attendees seemed to think that Asian carp infestation up to and perhaps beyond the Twin Cities is inevitable.

Jay Rendall, Minnesota DNR invasive species prevention coordinator who attended the meeting, argues against complacency. The DNA testing needs to be done, he said, so we know where the carp are.

And other ideas -- perhaps including the bubbler at Prescott, Wis. -- should be explored with the help of the Corps and Minnesota's congressional delegation to keep as many Asian carp as far downstream for as long as possible.

"Don't forget,'' Rendall said. "The carp that were brought to Minnesota in the 1800s, the kind we now have everywhere in our lakes and rivers, we still can't get rid of.''

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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