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Published on January 25th, 2010 | by Dave Dempsey

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Asian Carp Near Great Lakes: Are They So Bad?

January 25th, 2010 by

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists with a bighead carp, one of two species whose entry into the Great Lakes is sparking widespread concern.

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Last week’s edition of Great Lakes Asian carp news brought both a U.S. Supreme Court decision and disclosure of the species’ environmental DNA in Lake Michigan.  But as members of Congress, state officials and Great Lakes advocates scramble to prevent a self-sustaining Asian carp population in the Great Lakes, a Minnesota commentator has challenged the prevailing wisdom, asking whether such a population would really be so detrimental to the Lakes and their resources.  Among other things, commentator Greg Breining argues whether the idea of a “healthy ecosystem” is valid and whether so-called invasive species are often a bad thing.The suddenly urgent effort to stop the Asian carp entry into the Great Lakes is based on fears that the huge non-native fish might dramatically disturb the $4.5 billion-per-year sportfishery of the Lakes and cause other unforeseen impacts. Growing to 80 pounds or more and consuming up to 40% of their body weight daily, the silver and bighead carp have been likened to “aquatic vacuum cleaners.”

The invasive carp have been traveling northward through the Mississippi River ecosystem since escaping fish farms in the lower part of the watershed, where they were intentionally introduced to control aquatic weed growth. But the discovery late last year of Asian carp DNA close to Lake Michigan, on the wrong side of an electric barrier designed to keep the carp out, has spurred emergency poisoning of fish in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship canal, a lawsuit filed by the State of Michigan to close the canal and locks (the Supreme Court refused to issue an emergency order to do so on January 19), and even an “Asian carp summit” in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota commentary challenges the assumptions behind concerns about non-native species, citing academics who question the idea of healthy ecosystems.  “When someone is referring to a healthy ecosystem, what they are referring to is an ecosystem the way they want it to be,” says Dr. Mark Davis, chairman of Macalester Colleges’s biology department, in the piece.

“Like it or not, the world is increasingly made up of what scientists have called ‘novel ecosystems’ — biological stews of old and new,” writes Breining.

The commentary also says the non-native zebra mussels in the Great Lakes may be beneficial because they “encapsulate algae,” but research has shown they actually make more nutrients available and may be leading to renewed algae blooms in the lower Great Lakes.

Photo credit:  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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About the Author

Dave Dempsey is a writer active in conservation for more than 25 years. A frequent freelance contributor and newsweekly columnist, Dave is the author of four award-winning books on the environment and a biography of Michigan’s longest-serving Governor, William Milliken. A native of Michigan who now lives in the Twin Cities metro in Minnesota, Dave served as environmental advisor to Michigan Governor James J. Blanchard from 1983-89. President Clinton appointed him to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission in 1994. Dave has also held numerous administrative, policy and consulting positions for nonprofit conservation and environmental organizations in Michigan and Minnesota. He was both policy director and executive director at the Michigan Environmental Council and Great Lakes policy consultant for Clean Water Action. Dave has a bachelor of arts degree from Western Michigan University and a master’s degree in natural resource development from Michigan State University, and has served as an adjunct university instructor at MSU in environmental policy.



  • http://google.com tommy

    Just wanted to say I enjoyed the post. You have really put a lot of time into your article and it is just great!

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  • JohnG

    Yes, invasive species are bad. Invasive species are one of the main threats to biodiversity worldwide, right up there with habitat loss, pollution and over-harvesting. If you don’t mind the loss of native species and the resulting simplified ecosystem made up of only a few exotics, then maybe you don’t think invasives are so bad.

    But seriously, they are. From economics to aesthetics to ecology, they cause a lot of real harm, and we do need to address the problems they pose aggressively, not to mention trying to prevent the introduction of new exotics in the first place.

  • http://www.earthlab.net Brandon Keim

    The whole equivalence-of-ecosystems argument is a load of $@&! wrapped around a kernel of truth. They remind me of the dumbest sort of moral relativism: “All value judgements are equivalent, because values are arbitrary.”

    It’s true that pristine, untouched ecosystems are, at this point, mythology. It’s also true that “good” and “bad” are human terms. And — so what? Who cares? Would Greg Breining — who, I suspect, is irresponsibly mischaracterizing Mark Davis’ philosophy — care to argue that Lake Michigan would be perfectly lovely if all its fish died, and all that lived there was bacteria and algae and inedible mussels?

    Some people think the rich, complex web of life now supported by Lake Michigan is a special thing. It’s also a very profitable thing. And anyone who doesn’t understand this should enjoy spending their summer evenings in a drainage ditch.

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  • Don Mitchel

    This Administration ran on a platform to go green, but they seem to have a policy of only worrying about water restoration, not prevention of problems such as ballast water. Other than the commander and chiefs purposed two decade plan, drawn up by the Coast Guard that mirrors an international organization of foreign sea captains, foreign countries, and foreign companies who have a terrible track record, we have nothing. To address the polluted water trail and carbon footprint of international shipping moving fossil fuels and consumer goods, the president would need to be bi-partisan. Addressing ballast water may help prevent eggs and baby Asian carp from spreading into the Great Lakes through the ballast tanks of barges. The president may not have had to address the problem of closing a canal. This would cause economic problems in his home state, which are minimal compared to the economic and permanent damage he is willing to risk for the rest of the country. Because network media dose not make an issue of this problem and will continue to pretend, by silence, regardless of what happens, that our president is not responsible, it is quite easy for this president to continue to only talk about preventing the dirty carbon emission in manufacturing as that can they can be associated with the partisan issue of oil. The change that we needed in 2008 to fix this problem, was started and passed (395-7) by the house of representatives and has since been ignored by the Senate and this administration, Americans that care about our water should make sure that this administrations inaction on preventing the continued destruction of our water as the economy begins to recover and grow through the continued and growing importation of foreign goods is forever remembered as a missed opportunity to protect our country because of short term economics. If terrorist use this venue to attack us we should never allow it to be said “who knew” as we did in 2001. Dose anyone think that the reason network TV dose not address these problems could be associated with the sponsors? cruise ships, Walmart, oil companies, Etc.?

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