Great Lakes prepare to fend off invasive fish

Right now an Asian carp is barreling toward Lake Michigan, and the only thing stopping him is an electronic fence. Were he to make it past, his progeny could reach the shores of Lake Ontario within 10 years, with officials predicting disastrous results for Oswego’s local economy.

"They are voracious eaters of zooplankton, that’s the same food needed to sustain our more popular fish; they are competitors for other food resources," said William Culligan, of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Great Lakes Fisheries. "They are a very different species in diet and reproductive habit."

Asian carp, the latest invasive species to pose a risk to Lake Ontario’s eco-life, eat a heavy helping of plankton each day, up to 40 percent of their body weight, according to Culligan. That’s no paltry sum in fish that routinely grow up to 50 lbs. Eating habits like these reduce the population of other fish because they demolish the bottom rung of the food chain.

On top of that, they can be a danger to anyone in small watercraft or sailboats, Culligan said. When scared, silver carp leap over five feet out of the shallows, making them a projectile aimed for unsuspecting boaters.

David Turner, director of Oswego County tourism and economic development said that sports fishing and fishing tourism would be the hardest hit if the fish established themselves here. That’s a $40 million a year industry in Oswego County that employs 2,500 people, according to Turner.

"It would be devastating to the tourism and sports fishing industry," Turner said.

The carp have forded the waters of Mississippi River for years. The fish were intentionally brought to Louisiana and Mississippi in the ’90s but escaped captivity when a flood carried them into open water. They’ve since worked their way up the river and have been making strides northward toward Lake Michigan. Currently the carp are kept at bay by an electronic fence set up by the Army Corps of Engineers. But discovery of Asian carp DNA past that barrier has fueled fears that the fish have already dismantled the Corps’ best defense.

One popular solution is to force the closure of shipping lanes near Chicago that connect the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan. The Oswego County Economic Development and Planning Committee passed a resolution Tuesday calling on Gov. David Paterson, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature to join with other Great Lakes states already lobbying for those closures.

Long-term solutions include better electronic barriers and mechanisms that move freight on the river without transferring water, Turner said. But he criticizes the Army Corps of Engineers for not taking the spread of Asian carp more seriously. He alleges that the electric barriers were six years behind schedule and that not even half of the plans made by the Corp have been accomplished.

Larry Muroski, owner of Larry’s Oswego Salmon Shop, said the fish would hurt his business.

"I know it’s a bad thing and I don’t want them here," Muroski said. "I hope the government steps up and does the right thing."

Muroski holds the record for catching the world’s largest Asian carp—a 90 lb., 57-inch swimmer caught in Texas. He said the carp’s reputation as an egg-eater worried him most. The carp have been known to chase pan-fish like bass off their egg basins and eat directly into the next generation of sports fish.

While Turner said that there were no positive aspects to an Asian carp population in Lake Ontario, Muroski takes a slightly more positive view.

"It could be another species to be caught," Muroski said. "I have no idea what they taste like, but somebody will eat them, you know what I mean."

There have been no sightings of Asian carp in Lake Ontario yet, Culligan said. However, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen within the decade if the fish enter Lake Michigan. For now all efforts are focused on stopping the carp before they get past Chicago.

"It would take years, but it seems inevitable that an established population will spread," Culligan said. "We’re very concerned and hoping they can be stopped. They’re close enough that there’s very little room for error."