Invasive species, evasive answers

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 28, 2011 - 5:16 PM

Minnesota needs conclusive studies about the threat levels of Asian carp in the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers.

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December 2009: 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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Opportunities have been lost in the past five years or so in Minnesota's so-called "fight" against invasive species. This isn't the Department of Natural Resources' fault necessarily. The agency is reactive by nature, and its leaders know well the political dangers of trying to regulate without sufficient public support. And until recently, the public hasn't much cared about invasive species.

But public meetings held statewide by the DNR have demonstrated that Minnesotans now fully realize the threat that zebra mussels and Asian carp, among other evil critters and plants, pose to, among other things, lakeshore owners' property values.

Monday's news conference headlined by Gov. Mark Dayton, at which he announced support for increased boat registration fees and nonresident fishing license fees to intensify the fight against invasive species, was a sign the state is finally getting serious about, at least, the further spread of zebra mussels.

Asian carp are another kettle of fish. The fact is, the DNR and the various federal agencies that oversee these Mississippi River monsters have in recent years enjoyed a weird sort of work relationship in which one waits for the other to make the first substantive move, all the while knowing that move won't be taken. So little has been accomplished.

At the governor's news conference Monday, Luke Skinner, the DNR's invasive species kingpin, said that while individual Asian carp have been found in Minnesota's portion of the Mississippi River and in the St. Croix River, reproducing populations aren't here yet.

Skinner is a highly capable public official, a smart guy, and the state is lucky to have him. But in truth no one knows exactly how far north in the Mississippi reproducing populations of Asian carp swim. They're notoriously evasive of fishing nets and often dodge even the electro-fishing inventory efforts of fisheries managers. So, while baby Asian carp may in fact be confined to Iowa portions of the Mississippi, they could be finning in Minnesota's river waters also. No one can be sure.

A good idea then, as President Ronald Reagan would say, to trust by verify. And it seems now, this spring, finally, the DNR, together with the National Park Service and perhaps the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will conduct special DNA tests in the Mississippi from the Twin Cities to the Iowa border to determine the presence or absence of Asian carp.

That's the first step that must be taken to get Minnesota up to speed. Here are four more:

• The Coon Rapids dam must be repaired -- Dayton has $16 million in his bonding budget for it -- to provide a generally effective barrier to the upstream movement of Asian carp to Lake Mille Lacs, among other farther-north waters.

• Our congressional delegation, particular Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, need to get jacked up about a thousand percent more than they presently are about Asian carp. Their mission should be to convince the Obama administration that Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Manitoba and Ontario aren't interested in ceding their waters to Asian carp. Worried as the president and his carp czar might be about the Great Lakes basin and its possible invasion from Asian carp via the Illinois River, we're worried in our watersheds, too.

• Klobuchar, Franken, et al, need also to engage the Army Corps of Engineers and insist that money be found to install a bubbler and/or sonic barrier at Prescott, Wis., to (largely) prevent the invasion of Asian carp into the St. Croix. One would think, after all, if the National Park Service doesn't want a bridge over the St. Croix at Stillwater, it surely wouldn't want millions of 100-pound leaping Frankenfish in the same river.

• Finally, the DNR, the Park Service, the Corps of Engineers, the Fish and Wildlife Service and others must -- with the DNR in the lead -- join forces to form a unified plan and timetable to fight Asian carp.

Either that, or five years from now we'll look back at 2011 and say we should have acted. But that opportunity -- still another in a long string in the fight against invasive species -- was lost.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com

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