Asian carp discovery concerns some, excites others

The fish was found in Flatfoot Lake, less than 10 miles from Lake Michigan.

September 19, 2013

WBEZ/Michael Puente
Phillip Ashley (left) stands with friends while fishing at Flatfoot Lake on Thursday morning.

Despite the pouring rain Thursday, Phillip Ashley didn’t let that stop him from fishing at Flatfoot Lake at the Beaubien Woods Forest Persevere on Chicago’s far South Side.

He was there in the morning with a bunch of friends.

“We love coming out here,” Ashley said.

With a large yacht floating by, Flatfoot Lake almost looks like the Ohio River as it winds through a large landfill off the Bishop Ford Expressway. You’d never know it from its placid surface, but Flatfoot Lake is the latest battleground in the fight against the dreaded Asian carp.

At a conference last week in Milwaukee, the top federal official in charge of keeping the Asian carp out of the Great Lakes said an 82 pound, 53-inch Asian carp was caught in Flatfoot Lake in August.

Flatfoot Lake is located less than 10 miles away from Lake Michigan. While the proximity may worry environmentalists, it had Ashley excited at the thought of catching something so large.

“I’m looking for his brother,” Ashley told WBEZ.

Ashley says he caught an Asian carp once before in another nearby lake. He says there’s really nothing that can be done.

“If they’re here, they’re here. We just have to deal with them. There’s no way to get rid of them, you have to fish them out. That’s why we’re here today,” Ashley said.

The Asian carp is an invasive species with a healthy appetite, so scientists worry if they ever enter Lake Michigan, they could starve off native fish. That could endanger the lucrative commercial fishing trade.

Flatfoot Lake isn’t the only body of water where the Asian carp has been found recently. One was caught just this past July in the Humboldt Park Lagoon on the city’s West Side. While there is growing concern because of the proximity of these lakes and ponds, at least one top Illinois official says the issue is being overblown.

“There is no threat to Lake Michigan,” says Kevin Irons, Aquaculture and Aquatic Nuisance Manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, who spends much of his time trying to keep track and eradicate the Asian carp from Illinois bodies of water.

He says because Flatfoot Lake is landlocked, there’s no way Asian carp can get into Lake Michigan.

“There’s many ponds like this in Chicago that does not have a physical connection with Lake Michigan nor the canals around Chicago,” Irons said. “Again, there is no threat to Lake Michigan.”

Irons says Asian carp was probably put in the smaller lakes by people who didn’t know of the threat they could pose to Lake Michigan. Sometimes people mistake Asian carp for catfish. He says other invasive species, like piranhas, have also been found in smaller Chicago lakes and ponds.

But lawmakers are still worried about the discovery.

“If Asian carp are not stopped before they enter the Great Lakes, they could destroy the ecosystem, as well as the boating and fishing industries, and hundreds of thousands of jobs," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, at last week’s conference in Milwaukee.

Bighead and silver carp were imported from Asia to the southern U.S. in the 1970s to control algae in fish ponds and sewage lagoons. They escaped and have infested most of the Mississippi River and many of its tributaries, including the Illinois and Wabash rivers, which could provide linkages to Lake Michigan and Lake Erie.

Scientists say if the voracious carp become established in the lakes and spread widely, they could out-compete other fish for plankton — the base of aquatic food chains.

Stabenow sponsored legislation enacted last year that ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete a study on a permanent solution by early 2014. They say the best measure is to physically separate the Great Lakes and Mississippi River drainage basins, which Chicago business interests oppose, saying it could disrupt shipping and tour boat traffic.

The corps report will include a list of options, including physical separation, and a price tag for each. Flatfoot Lake is also very close to the Indiana border. Officials in Indiana reported Thursday that the Asian carp has an ability to adapt to its surroundings.

Purdue University assistant professor Reuben Goforth said that the gills are changing on some species of Asian carp in the Wabash River. That makes them stronger and a greater threat to the river's native species.

He says students collecting data on Asian carp eggs found 300,000 eggs in three minutes in June. The most they had found previously was 1,000 in five minutes.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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