Asian Carp jump out of the water at the mouth of the Wabash River. (Louisville District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Flickr)

WASHINGTON— Charlie Gilpin Jr. has been fishing on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers for almost 20 years, and invasive Asian carp have been a nuisance for as long as he can remember. Recently, he counted 23 carp inside his boat. They got there just by jumping.

But Gilpin says the Asian carp aren’t anything new in Midwest river systems. Now, the main concern is that the carp infestation will spread to the Great Lakes.

Asian carp are voracious eaters, reproduce quickly and eat phytoplankton, which is the base of the aquatic food chain, concerning environmental advocates, Great Lakes states and members of the fishing industry alike.

In late February, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal for emergency measures that would have protected the Great Lakes from invasive carp. This is the fourth time the high court has refused the petition, jointly put forth by Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio and Minnesota.

Surprisingly, many environmental groups have supported the Supreme Court’s hesitation to become involved in the environmental dispute.

Thomas Cmar of the Natural Resources Defense Council said that environmental advocates and state governments agree on the need to protect the Great Lakes from invasive carp. However, they disagree on how to do it. The states’ solution to install nets between Lake Michigan and the Calumet River is only a quick fix, and environmental groups argue that a long-term solution is really necessary.

Groups such as NRDC are looking beyond litigation to organize solutions for separation between the lake and the river. Options include a solid underwater barrier or the use of pheromones to target toxicants specifically at the invasive carp.

“The litigation is a hammer,” Cmar said. “You can do a lot with a hammer, and sometimes the hammer is necessary if you need to pound in some nails. But there are a lot of other tools that are necessary if you actually want to build something for the long term.”

What are Asian carp?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refers to four different species when using the term “Asian carp”— silver, grass, bighead and black.

Filter-feeding Asian carp were brought to the U.S. in the 1970s as a biological treatment for algae in catfish farms. As a result of floods, some carp escaped from the fish farms and migrated north through the Mississippi River.

Marc Smith, senior policy manager at the National Wildlife Federation, refers to the carp as the fish that “breed like mosquitoes” and “eat like hogs.”  Exotic carp compete with native species for food and they have no natural predators. Thus, the fish can endlessly multiply and disrupt the aquatic food web.

From the Mississippi, the fish have continued to move into the Illinois, Missouri and Ohio rivers. Scientists say they are now within 55 miles of Lake Michigan.

If the fish get into Lake Michigan, they can then travel through the other Great Lakes and eventually continue north to Canada.

Real sea monsters

There are more than 180 established populations of exotic species in the Great Lakes region, so why does most of the attention seem to be centered on Asian carp?

One reason for the notoriety is the visibility of silver carp. These invaders can jump up to 10 feet out of the water when they are startled, hitting boaters or equipment. The EPA has reported black eyes, broken jaws and noses and concussions as a result of the carp’s jumping habits.

Gilpin said he has seen a significant increase in the carp population over the past five or six years. The carp jumping in his boat has been so bad that he often needs to stop and protect himself. If he doesn’t stop his boat, Gilpin said, he would probably suffer serious injury.

Dan O’Keefe, a Michigan Sea Grant Educator in the Michigan State University extension program, said the silver carp can even “potentially kill someone.”  However, said O’Keefe, the problems caused by invasive species in the Great Lakes stretch way beyond the fish. The visibility of the carp has played a critical role in drawing publicity to the broader problem of harmful, exotic species.

“It’s a fish that people see,” O’Keefe said. “When you’re a fish and you live in a big muddy river, a lot of times people don’t pay that much attention. If you’re jumping out of the water and hitting people in the head, all of a sudden people are paying attention.”

Physically harmful fish pose more of a threat to humans than smaller species that sit on the bottom of rivers. Weighing up to 40 pounds, Asian carp have taken on a reputation as real-life sea monsters. A search of Asian carp on YouTube shows thousands of videos of “carp attacks,” or storms of startled carp hurtling out of Midwestern rivers and smacking boaters.

“You always need a monster to really get people’s attention, and carp has provided that in people’s minds,” said Smith. “The actual face of the carp has really allowed the public perception to focus in on and understand it. You see it and feel it. Then you can really see the problem.”

Furthermore, people pay attention to invasive carp because they, unlike some other invasive species, can still be stopped from spreading into the Great Lakes. Many Midwesterners are already sensitized to invasive species in their waterways and seek to stop the carp as they advance.

“We actually have an opportunity now to do something preventative to stop an invasive species from coming into a water body before it happens,” Smith said. “They’re not in Lake Michigan yet, but they’re on the footsteps.”

Polarized by politics

Kevin Irons of the Illinois Department of National Resources said that although the Supreme Court has refused to take action against Asian carp, they should still be an issue of global concern.

If Asian carp move farther into U.S. waterways, Irons said, it will put much more than natural resources on the line. Progression of carp into the Great Lakes would also impact flooding in cities, infrastructure, recreation, commercial shipping and human health.

“The solutions will have implications around the world,” Irons said about stopping the spread of the carp. “Exotic species in general contribute to the decline in endangered species everywhere. They’re competing for habitat, causing diseases, so all these issues affect everyone.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working on a study examining possible solutions to keep invasive carp out of the Great Lakes. The study is to be completed in 2015. Until then, environmental advocates will continue to push for Congress to step in.

But according to Cmar, 2015 may be too late. Carp populations may be established in Lake Michigan by then.

“We are stuck in a polarizing political site over whether to move forward or not,” Cmar said. “We need Congress to step in and shake things up.”

(Jaclyn Skurie/Medill)