The Challenge of Asian Carp

In the 1950s, British colonists introduced Nile perch into Lake Victoria, creating an economic boom for the local fishing industry. As the fish propagated, over 180,000 jobs were added by the 1980s to handle a burgeoning harvest, which fed the entire region, including Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, plus lucrative exports to Europe.

But there were unforeseen — and disastrous — consequences. The Nile perch preyed on the native cichlid fish, nearly wiping them out. Decimation of the cichlid led to overgrowth of algae on the lake, which has strangled the marine life and the fishing as well. Today, restoration of Lake Victoria is one of the many projects that Israeli scientists are working on as part of the overall outreach to Africa.

The lesson is obvious for anyone with a bright idea for improving the arrangement of species in an ecosystem that Hashem created in a marvelous yet often extremely complex way, often misunderstood by mortals. It is not necessary to dump toxic waste chemicals into the lakes and rivers to kill off life; it can be done by adding wildlife from another place that doesn’t belong in this place, no matter how good the human intentions.

We tell this story because a similar scenario is being played out currently in the United States. The Great Lakes are immediately threatened by the advent of Asian carp, a voracious predator which, if not stopped, will soon enter the lakes and devour stocks of native fish, and take a large chunk of the fishing and tourist industry down with them.

Like Nile perch, Asian carp was originally an import with a bright future. It was introduced in the southeastern U.S. to help control weeds and parasites in aquaculture operations, including gobbling up algae from fish farms and sewage ponds.

But in this case, too, there were unforeseen — and unhappy — consequences. These fish soon navigated their way up the Mississippi River system, where they have been killing off various valuable aquatic species and causing ecological mayhem.

As the Asian carp approached the Great Lakes, endangering that vast ecosystem and the contingent economy, the federal government’s Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force stepped in to try to prevent a regional disaster. Unfortunately, all the available wildlife expertise and technology in the country has failed to bring the invading fish under control.

A multi-million dollar underwater electric fence hasn’t kept them away. The proposal to install physical barriers in the Chicago Area Waterways System has so far been vetoed by shipping companies who say it would impede the movement of huge quantities of cargo. An Army Corps of Engineers plan to bolster defenses at a lock and dam near Chicago where the carp can gain entry has been put on hold by the Trump administration.

Local officialdom has grown so desperate for a way to interdict the invaders, they’ve resorted to offering prize money for anyone who can come up with a solution. Michigan, whose $38 billion tourism industry is at risk, has set aside $1 million to develop a competition to find the best idea for stopping Asian carp. Details to be announced.

However, even if a way is devised to keep the carp out of the Great Lakes, these tough, aggressive fish (which grow to four feet long and weigh 20-70 pounds!) will likely proliferate throughout other parts of the country by way of inter-connecting waterways up and down the Mississippi River system. The worst-case scenario envisions Asian carp invasions in as many as 31 states, about 40 percent of the continental U.S.

Official efforts to keep that from happening are ongoing. State and federal agencies are monitoring the threatened areas for signs of Asian carp and continue work on developing an effective barrier technology to check their further spread.

Part of the challenge is the athletic ability of the Asian carp. They have been seen jumping as high as 10 feet out of the water. That means they can hurdle physical barriers if they aren’t high enough. The National Park Service and the state of Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources are joining in construction of dams high enough to be unjumpable.

Only time will tell whether the menace of Asian carp can be dealt with successfully and whether Hashem will grant the same humans who brought about this pending disaster the enterprise and ingenuity to take the right steps to prevent it.