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Asian carp have been making their way up the Mississippi River system for years after escaping from fish farms and wastewater treatment ponds in the southern U.S.They’re knocking on the door of the Great Lakes, and a number of people are concerned about what could happen if carp become established in the region.In this five-part series, we’ll take a look at what officials are trying to do to keep the fish out, what might happen if carp get in, and why some people want to turn carp into a business opportunity.

Agencies draft new plan of attack for Asian carp

A bighead carp at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.
Rebecca Williams
Michigan Radio
A bighead carp at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

There’s a coalition of federal and state agencies working to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

It’s called the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee. It just came out with its carp planfor this year.

Marc Gaden is with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, and he’s part of that group. He says they have a three-pronged approach to tackling the Asian carp problem.

"It’s monitoring, so eyes and ears and boots on the ground to know where these fish are. It’s management: ongoing activities to keep these fish from moving around, to limit their reproduction. And then, contingency planning; based on that monitoring, if the Asian carp are found somewhere where they shouldn’t be, we have a contingency plan, or specific actions we can take to deal with the problem."

He says the agencies are going to double the fishing effort in the Dresden Island pool, in Illinois, which is the location of the leading edge of Asian carp.

A diagram showing the location of the leading edge of the carp population.
Credit Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee
A diagram showing the location of the leading edge of the carp population.

"So we’re going to have much more commercial fishing to remove [the carp], and already we’ve removed tons and tons. We’re going to significantly increase our monitoring in 2016 throughout the Chicago Area Waterway System and in the rivers in Illinois."

But I really want to stress that the contingency plan, which is brand new, is a sea change in thinking because what it does is it outlines what exactly you can do if these fish are found where they shouldn’t be. It commits the agencies who are part of the response to take that action," says Gaden.

He says the adult population of Asian carp is still about 50 miles from Lake Michigan, with a system of locks and electric barriers in between.

But a new federal studyfound that small fish can be trapped between barges and can get through locks and electric barriers. Gaden says it's possible the same thing could happen with little carp.

"We’re very concerned that small Asian carp could be caught in the shadow of a barge: they call that entrainment, and moved beyond the electrical barrier, from below the barrier to above the barrier," says Gaden. "It’s very real. The studies have shown these carp can get in an eddy or protected zone, and moved past the barrier. There are studies going on now about how that can be stopped."

If Asian carp make it into the Great Lakes, many people worry they could cause billions of dollars in damage. The large fish are voracious feeders that can out-compete native species. Silver carp tend to jump when startled, which can injure people and damage boats.

Gaden says the total spent on Asian carp, by all agencies, is about $57 million per year. More than half of that is for the electrical barrier system.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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