Asian carp hunters first line of defense against invasive species for Great Lakes

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Shawn Price is an Asian carp hunter, a job that pays the bills but has given him a mission of sorts.

The Illinois-based commercial fisherman is targeting these invasive species — especially the silver carp that hurtle out of the water like a rocket — that officials from several states including Michigan as well as Canada desperately want to keep out of the Great Lakes.

Price's team on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers this year has caught more than 100,000 of the silver and bighead carp — two of four Asian carp species most destructive to other fish life and potentially the Great Lakes economy.

Shawn Price hauls in Asian carp with a net on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River. The state of Illinois contracts with certain commercial fisheries to hunt the invasive species in a bid to stop their spread toward the Great Lakes.

The Price family and other fishing companies form a first line of defense for the Great Lakes. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources pays a total of nearly $1.2 million each year to the companies to catch the Asian carp and kill them. The money comes from the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

This has prevented the 20-inch to 30-inch carp from muscling out smaller fish for food in the lakes.

"Obviously No. 1, it's a job for me because you have to support your family, but I certainly also buy into the fact that I don't want them into the Great Lakes, either," Price said in a phone interview during a carp run last week on the Mississippi River. "We're basically herding cattle is what it ends up being once all the nets are out."

Asian carp hunting has been underway for years, with millions of dollars spent and millions of fish caught. Scientists and public officials are seeking more funding to keep up the efforts to prevent the invasive fish from getting a foothold in the Great Lakes — including a $778 million Army Corps of Engineers plan that would fortify an Illinois waterway with electric cables, noisemakers and other devices.

But even with electric barriers in place in Illinois and other strategies to detect and keep them out from Ohio to Canada, some officials argue it's a race against time to keep the Asian carp out of the lakes. 

"It is not inevitable. It is a race," said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing. 

Since around 1985, nearly 450 grass carp have been discovered in rivers and tributaries leading into Lake Erie, although that species of carp is not seen as destructive. A few scattered, more dangerous carp have been caught in other rivers or tributaries, though they haven't gained a permanent presence.

At stake is the Great Lakes fishing industry, which is valued at $7 billion and supports more than 75,000 jobs, according to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. 

Bighead and silver carp devour plankton that mussels and other fish that dwell in the Great Lakes eat to survive, experts say. The depletion of the plankton hurts native fish that anglers love to catch and eat.

"People depend on the fishery. They pay money to go fish. If the fish populations drop, the economic value of the fishery will drop," said Edward Rutherford, a research fishery biologist for the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"The silver carp, in particular, is a fish that jumps out of the water when a boat comes nearby. If it hits you, it's a 20- or 30-pound fish flying through the air like a ballistic missile. It's a boating hazard where they are abundant."

From 1995 to 2000, three bighead carp were found in Lake Erie — one on the Canadian side and two others near Sandusky — but none since, fishery officials and scientists say. In 2017, a silver carp caught in the Chicago area had gotten beyond a barrier, but none after.

Those results, officials said, indicate plans to keep them out are working.

"Almost 20 years has gone by, and we haven't seen another one," said Duane Chapman, a researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey in Missouri, of the bighead carp that were caught in Lake Erie. "If there were any substantial fish out there, we'd know by now."

But officials are confident they know where the carp are located, and most dangerous ones haven't reached the Great Lakes. Fishery officials in Illinois, Michigan and Canada have a "good pulse of where the fish are and where they aren't currently," said Kevin Irons, aquaculture and aquatic nuisance species program manager for the Illinois DNR.

"There's an incredible amount of commercial fishing going on, especially on the Canadian side, in the Great Lakes," Irons said. "If there was a population of bighead carp, silver carp, we would know that."

Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife  technicians move Asian carp caught during an electrofishing demonstration into another boat at the Barkley Dam in the Cumberland River in Grand Rivers, Ky. on  Aug. 1. The electrofishing demonstration was held to show the large population of an invasive carp in the river.

Catch-and-kill removal efforts keep the majority of Asian carp from reaching three underwater barriers in a canal near Joliet, Illinois, Irons said. The barriers, which send electrical shocks through the water to stop fish from advancing, are approximately 33 miles from Lake Michigan.

It is unlikely that bighead carp have made it into Lake Michigan and are spawning because they tend to reproduce in large numbers, said Chapman, who added it can't be ruled out entirely.

"There's risk, yes, and the risk over time is going to build," he said.

Brought from China, Asian carp were introduced into southern U.S. catfish farms in the 1960s to clean up algae blooms and other aquatic vegetation.

The fish were used instead of chemicals to clean up the fish farms, experts say. Eventually, Asian carp made it to the Mississippi River basin and have traveled north into the Illinois River system that leads into the Great Lakes.

"All noble things, but it didn't work there," Irons said. "The bighead and silver carp escaped in '74. And really we were caught a bit flat-footed."

Canadian officials are helping in the fight against Asian carp since their country shares Lakes Superior, Huron, Erie and Ontario.

Canada does "early detection surveillance" in tributaries that are "at high risk for spawning or have suitable habitat for Asian carp" and using proven techniques to capture them, said David Marson, senior aquatic biologist of the Aquatic Invasive Species Program for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

There's evidence of grass carp spawning in the Sandusky and Maumee rivers that lead into Lake Erie. But Marson said efforts of working together are bearing fruit.

Carp jump out of the Cumberland River in Grand Rivers, Ky. as biologists work to remove them from the water during an electrofishing demonstration on Aug. 1 to show the large population of invasive carp in the river.

Chapman keeps a long view on the battle to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

"We are not ever going to be a 100% certain that we're going to keep the fish from getting in, but we can make this work for a long time, and we don't let down our guard."

Meanwhile, Price said he intends to keep hunting Asian carp.

"They are a really fast fish, so once they know that net's coming on them, they tend to run for the door," Price said. "Having that door close before you even start messing with them is pretty important."

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