Asian Carp Still On the Move

UPDATE - September 2015

Since the story below was published, small Silver carp have been found above the Starved Rock Lock & Dam for the first time. From July 2015 to early September, 99 silver carp less than 6-inches have been collected, all within the Starved Rock Pool.

“This information allows us to update our risk map and show that small fish have now been detected within 91 miles of Lake Michigan,” said Kevin Irons, IDNR Aquatic Nuisance Species Program Manager. “Efforts to detect these fish farther upstream are ongoing and to date have not resulted in the capture of any small silver carp upstream of Starved Rock Pool.”

This marks a 52 mile upstream increase in where small Asian carp were found in 2014. Here is the updated risk map:

As of September 2015, small Asian carp were found in the Starved Rock Pool of the Illinois Waterway. The location is 54 miles downstream from the electric dispersal barriers. Small Asian carp are now 91 miles away from Lake Michigan. This marks a 52 mile upstream increase in where small Asian carp were found in 2014.
Updated Risk Map
As of September 2015, small Asian carp were found in the Starved Rock Pool of the Illinois Waterway. The location is 54 miles downstream from the electric dispersal barriers. Small Asian carp are now 91 miles away from Lake Michigan. This marks a 52 mile upstream increase in where small Asian carp were found in 2014.

———Original Story———

Over the winter, federal officials claimed that Asian carp aren’t swimming closer to Lake Michigan but researchers, and scientific data, say otherwise. New data released earlier this month shows an established population of silver carp was found 33 miles closer to Lake Michigan. Exploring this debate is the focus of the second piece in our series examining the problems, and opportunities, facing the Chicago Area Waterways System.

In February, an official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told a Congressional subcommittee that Asian carp have been “stalled” since about 2006, and not moved closer to Lake Michigan.​

But researchers, and scientific data, say this is likely not true.

Results from monitoring efforts released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in April, found a number of year-old silver carp – part of what the US Fish & Wildlife Service considers an “established population”– in the Peoria Pool off the Illinois River. This puts the young Asian carp 33 miles closer to Lake Michigan than they had been found previously.

Adding to concerns, fragments of DNA from Asian carp have been found in numerous spots throughout the Chicago Area Waterway System and very close to Lake Michigan. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released in January test results showing that environmental DNA or “eDNA” from Asian carp was found in 23 spots along Chicago area waterways, including just a few city blocks from the locks separating the Chicago River from Lake Michigan.

Asian carp are still “on the march” and they pose a serious risk to the Great Lakes. Government agencies and others involved in the effort to block Asian carp from Lake Michigan must keep moving forward both with immediate measures to curb their advance, and with a long-term solution that separates the Mississippi River basin from the Great Lakes basin.

Currently, an electric barrier in the Sanitary & Ship Canal 37 miles from Lake Michigan is meant to block Asian carp. But eggs and smaller Asian carp can pass through the barrier—that’s why the April finding of small, young fish closer to the barrier than ever before raised concerns. And even larger fish may get through the electrical field.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is investigating options for add-ons to the Brandon Road lock and dam near Joliet. The lock and dam create a choke-point in the Des Plaines River and an obvious location for another layer of protection to prevent Asian carp from moving towards the lakes. This proposed $25 million project would include high-speed circulating water and other technologies to block fish of all sizes.

At a February 11 hearing, Army Corps Lieutenant General Thomas P. Bostick told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development that “established populations” of Asian carp are 143 miles from Lake Michigan, and that Asian carp spawning areas are 67 miles away. The Corps is basing their conclusions largely on monitoring for Asian carp with nets and electroshocking, where an electric charge is created in the water to stun fish so they can be counted.

Experts said the fact that these methods have not turned up Asian carp does not mean they are not present. They say eDNA is a far more dependable way to detect Asian carp.

Chris Jerde worked with prominent scientist David Lodge and The Nature Conservancy to develop the eDNA test at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Environmental Change. He said the Army Corps’ methods of looking for Asian carp – netting and electroshock—are not good ways to measure populations in the Sanitary & Ship Canal.

“If you set nets, you have to set them for a long time, and in a canal it’s hard to do because you have so much boat traffic,” he said. “The only place you can set them is places that may be sub-optimal for Asian carp. Even in areas where we know Asian carp are in high density, these nets are not very effective in catching them.”

He noted that the canal is much deeper and more rectangular than rivers where electroshocking or netting are typically used, another reason that Asian carp could likely evade those techniques.

“The question that never gets answered is, ‘Why would they stall?’” Jerde continued. “They’re not stalling anywhere else.”

In 2010 an Asian carp was actually found in Lake Calumet six miles from Lake Michigan. “Not to mention it was one of healthiest specimens I’ve ever seen,” said Jerde. “It was a big guy.”

A real solution

While additional protection measures at by Brandon Road would likely do much to slow the spread of Asian carp, experts still say the only real long-term solution is ecologically separating Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River basin. There are various structural ways this could be done, and options have been studied by a variety of agencies.

Restoring the natural divide, a groundbreaking report by the Great Lakes Commission and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Cities Initiative released in January 2012, outlined several options for separating the basins. In January 2014, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released their study, which was undertaken by Congressional demand. The Corps’ cost estimates were very steep, up to $18.3 billion. But other experts say that the agency may have overestimated the price tag, and that more importantly, people must consider the costs if Asian carp were to establish themselves in the Great Lakes. Among other things, the Great Lakes’ $7 billion commercial fishery could be at risk.

“Only ecological separation has been found to be a permanent and totally effective solution,” said Sierra Club Illinois director Jack Darin. “I don’t think we can be too careful in protecting Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes.”

He added that, “Separation is only going to work when our local governments and leaders really design a solution that’s going to work for Chicago. The Corps told us that separation can be done and that it’s the most effective way to protect the Great Lakes. Where they fell short was designing a plan that could work for Chicago. We really need our local leaders to lead that process.”

Chad Lord, policy director for the Healing Our Waters coalition, said it’s clear that ecological separation is both necessary and possible.

“The bottom line is if we want to do something, we’re going to do it,” he said. “We reversed the Chicago River a hundred years ago. The engineering is not the problem, the problem is with building the political will. That’s why we build a coalition and a multi-stakeholder process looking at what’s best for the Great Lakes.”

A Note About This Series: Over the coming months, the Healthy Water Solutions coalition will be publishing a series of articles, focusing in-depth on the problems facing the Chicago Area Waterways System. To receive future articles, sign up for our email list here.

Posted June 22, 2015