The Problems with “Asian Carp”

By Garrett Stack

Asian carp are among the most high profile invasive species in America. In part, this is due to their rapid spread through American waterways. Brought to the U.S. to clean Southern fish farms, these bottom feeders gained access to major waterways when the ponds flooded their banks. Asian carp have since made their way up the Illinois River as far north as Chicago, raising major alarms about the possibility of a continued spread to the Great Lakes and, from there, all other Michigan waterways. However, to really understand the problem, you need to see the carp in action.

Electrofishing for Asian Carp, by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Public Domain

Asian carp generate their own press thanks to one primary trait: they leap from the water when disturbed by boat engines. Silver carp—the leaping carp—are not subtle about their presence in a body of water such as the Illinois River. And the fish, which can grow to over 100 pounds, can be dangerous for boaters when they become giant flying projectiles. The visual impact of hundreds of leaping carp has elicited numerous responses; chief among them is fear and a desire to stop these fish from transforming local waterways even further. This spectacle has spawned countless stories, pictures, and videos, which lend veracity to warning claims issued by the media and government. Usually, the call to action for resistance to invasive species comes from scientists; however, in this instance the spectacle of leaping carp has helped the species jump to the head of the line for America’s most wanted.

Unlike other invasive species which are less spectacular (e.g. the emerald ash borer or the zebra mussel) and which have demonstrated a consistent, broad-scale negative effect on ecosystem health, the Asian carp’s impact on the Illinois River and their potential impact on the Great Lakes remains unknown and difficult to accurately predict, though they are generally known to be prolific spawners and may outcompete some native fish species for food.

Whereas, the scientific community has had trouble communicating their consensus position on such issues as global climate change, here we have a case where the absence of scientific consensus appears to be taken for granted based upon the governmental response, or more specifically the 2010 establishment of the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee (ACRCC), a collection of more than 20 local, state, and federal agencies with a budget of over 100 million dollars for carp prevention and further scientific study, and the naming of ACRCC Chair John Goss as the official national Carp Czar.

In addition, the term “Asian Carp” comes with a host of its own problems. Though commonly referred to by this moniker, five separate carp species—common, grass, black, bighead, and silver—are included under one name. And, only one species, the silver carp, actually does the jumping. However, thanks in part to the regionally-focused name and an unusually low eye placement, these carp have been saddled with a whole host of harmful immigrant metaphors that reinforce negative stereotypes and clouds the real issue at heart: maintaining healthy waterways.

This is not to say that efforts to keep the carp out of the Great Lakes are not vital; no one wants a big old carp slapping them in the face. Moreover, with a $7 billion fishing industry at stake and the safety of boaters at risk, the cause certainly merits your time and attention. The Michigan DNR recently held the Great Lakes Invasive Carp Challenge to draw innovators from all over the world to help offer solutions to keep the carp out of Lake Michigan (and it is worth a few clicks if you have the time). However, just make sure that when you talk about carp, you try to keep the politics (and the people) out of the discussion, and focus on the health of our Michigan water.