Asian carp may threaten recreational boating, too

December 23, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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West Michigan members of the multi-billion dollar Great Lakes sport fishing industry seem resigned to an eventual invasion of Asian carp in Lake Michigan, in the face of a refusal by the federal government to close the Chicago canals that link the Big Lake to the river systems where the carp already are.

Now the question is: What would actually happen if any of the four voracious and prolific species of Asian carp get in?

“I think the bigger problem is going to be the drowned river mouths — the Kalamazoo River, Lake Macatawa, St. Joe … anywhere upriver and any lakes it gets into. I think that’s a bigger concern than anything else,” said Ron Westrate, who operates a fishing charter out of Saugatuck and is the Southern Lake Michigan director of the Michigan Charter Boat Association. He also is president of the Saugatuck-Holland Charter Boat Association.

Westrate said he personally is not convinced Asian carp would have much impact in Lake Michigan because water conditions there may not support them. However, he added that “the position of the Michigan Charter Boat Association is, they don’t want to take any chance.”

Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have filed suit trying to force an immediate closure of the Chicago canals, but a federal judge in December sided with opponents who claim the locks are essential for commerce and flood control.

“They are not going to close the canals,” said Westrate, adding, “Possibly, it’s too late anyway.”

“The concern is, we don’t know exactly what they are going to do,” said Paul Jensen, a third-generation commercial fisherman in Muskegon and one of only two commercial fishing families left in West Michigan.

“The real problem is all the drowned river mouth lakes, like Muskegon and Spring Lake, White Lake, and the river systems. … The more we look at this, the more we see there is the possibility of (Asian carp) being able to spawn and reproduce” in the river systems.

He predicted that if that happens, “they are going to change the food web again, which is the real problem we’re having with invasives — the big change in the food web.”

The invasive quagga mussel, a relative of the zebra mussel, has increased dramatically in Lake Michigan over the past 10 years, according to Michigan Sea Grant at the University of Michigan. It has expanded into deep waters of Lake Michigan where it removes “vast amounts of phytoplankton,” according to Michigan Sea Grant, depleting the food supply chain that ultimately feeds salmon and trout.

A November publication by Michigan Sea Grant states that two species of Asian carp in particular, the silver and bighead, could pose a serious threat to native fish species if they become established in the Great Lakes. Both feed on microscopic plants and animals and could disrupt the food chain.

Sea Grant notes that the Great Lakes themselves are a “more hostile” environment to silver and bighead carp than the Mississippi River system. “However, large tributary rivers with extensive backwater systems or nearby bays (e.g., Grand River, Saginaw River) could provide suitable conditions.”

This year the Obama administration released its Asian Carp Control Strategy Framework, which includes placement of a third electric carp barrier in the Chicago Area Waterway system. It will be in operation in January.

However, Dan O’Keefe, an educator in Ottawa County for the Southwest Michigan division of Michigan Sea Grant, noted that in June there was an Associated Press report of a bighead carp caught in Lake Calumet, about six miles from Lake Michigan and above the Army Corps of Engineers’ electric barriers that were in place at the time.

O’Keefe also noted that DNA from a silver carp was detected last year in Calumet Harbor, which is open to Lake Michigan. He conceded that there is some debate that the reported DNA is not proof that the fish are already in Lake Michigan waters. But, he said, “to my mind, if you find DNA, that’s pretty strong evidence a fish was there recently.”

O’Keefe said that while it may be true that Asian carp will not be able to thrive in Lake Michigan, he believes they could make it “through Lake Michigan to better habitats like those river mouth lakes, and that’s really where the biggest concern is.”

In June, O’Keefe was on the Illinois River in central Illinois with technicians from the state who were studying the Asian carp populations there.

“If you want to go out on those waterways, you’re taking a risk” of being struck by a leaping silver carp, said O’Keefe. As a result, some people have added Plexiglas windshields to their boats and other shields to protect the boat’s electronic devices.

“You don’t go water skiing or jet skiing without really considering” the risk of hitting a leaping silver carp, he said.

The Business Journal asked Chris McCloud, a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, if silver carp on the Illinois River are actually a hazard to boaters.

“Absolutely,” he said, adding that “not every tributary” has the problem.

The central part of the Illinois River system, about 400 miles southwest of Chicago, is “ground zero” for the silver carp problem, said McCloud.

“In central Illinois, there are quite a few Asian carp. And yes, it has affected the recreational boating industry and the commercial fishing industry there,” said McCloud. “It would not be hard to miss them if you were on certain stretches of the Illinois River, no doubt. And I’m sure some places on the Mississippi, too.”

Denny Grinold, who operates a charter fishing boat out of Grand Haven and is the state affairs officer for the Michigan Charter Boat Association, said that in December the Michigan DNRE started distributing brochures to Michigan businesses and organizations that have interest in the Great Lakes. He said the brochure explains how to identify Asian carp and what steps to take if one is found to help fight their spread.

Grinold was asked for his personal opinion on what will happen.

“I sincerely hope that what may happen, never happens,” said Grinold, emphasizing “may.”

He said there is potential for Asian carp to be “devastating” to the Great Lakes sport fishing industry, which some estimate has an economic ripple effect worth about $7 billion.

He compared the Asian carp threat to the sea lamprey population, which invaded the Great Lakes generations ago, decimated the lake trout industry, and still forces the federal government to spend from $25 million to $30 million each year in attempts to control it. The sea lamprey reproduces in rivers and streams that connect to the Great Lakes — and yes, electric barriers have been used on rivers in West Michigan.

Waters that feed into Lake Michigan are “ideal habitat” for Asian carp, said Grinold.

“Once they get established in those streams, they’ll push into all the popular game fish lakes,” he said, and the carp would also impact the food chain that ultimately feeds the salmon and trout out in Lake Michigan.

If silver carp do become established in Lake Michigan, will we see images of fish jumping into the air next to boats on Lake Macatawa and Spring Lake?

“That’s a huge potential,” replied Grinold.

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