A commercial fisherman pulled a live Asian carp out of the Calumet River this week about 9 miles from Lake Michigan, prompting a furious dragnet to determine if more of the voracious fish have evaded electric barriers designed to keep them out of the Great Lakes.
The alarming discovery of an 8-pound, 28-inch adult silver carp comes as President Donald Trump is proposing a federal budget that would gut funding for efforts to block Asian carp and other invasive species from the world’s largest body of fresh surface water.
The Trump administration also has refused to release a government study on new proposals to prevent carp from moving upstream from the Illinois River, where the fish already have wreaked havoc on the ecosystem.
This is the second time a live Asian carp has been found beyond three barriers in the Sanitary and Ship Canal near Romeoville. The 2010 discovery of a bighead carp in Lake Calumet led to heated debates between Chicago-area business interests and officials in other Great Lakes states who tried unsuccessfully to force the closure of shipping locks that separate Lake Michigan from inland waterways.
Since then a multi-agency effort has focused on maintaining the barriers, checking for Asian carp in waterways and paying commercial fishermen to thin the population in the Illinois River. The roughly $5 million-a-year program is funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a bipartisan effort Trump is pushing to eliminate.
Officials cautioned Friday that the discovery of a lone fish past the electric barriers isn’t proof Asian carp are reproducing closer to Lake Michigan, or in the lake itself. They plan to conduct more intensive sampling during the next two weeks on both sides of the T.J. O’Brien Lock and Dam on the Calumet River.
“It’s a little disturbing, but it’s not at a point where we would call this a catastrophic situation,” said Charlie Wooley, Midwest deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The fish carcass will be analyzed at Southern Illinois University, where biologists should be able to determine by mid-July where the silver carp came from. The same lab determined the bighead carp caught in 2010 had spawned in Arkansas, leading officials to speculate it had arrived in the Chicago area in a shipment of farm-raised catfish and somehow made it into Lake Calumet.
Bighead and silver carp are two of the four types of Asian carp threatening the Great Lakes, largely because they eat massive amounts of plankton that walleye, perch, whitefish and other native species depend on during crucial stages of development. Silver carp have become YouTube sensations because boat motors cause them to leap high out the water, in some cases injuring passing boaters.
Since 2010, more than 5.5 million pounds of Asian carp have been pulled out of the Illinois River upstream from Starved Rock State Park, said Kevin Irons, aquatic nuisance species program manager at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Members of Congress from other Great Lakes states have been pushing to permanently separate Lake Michigan from waterways that flow toward the Mississippi River.
Illinois and Chicago-area officials have blocked those efforts so far, leading government agencies to focus on a less-expensive overhaul of the Brandon Road Lock and Dam near Joliet. But the Trump administration has delayed making public a report on Asian carp defenses prepared by the Army Corps of Engineers.
“One fish isn’t a crisis, but it certainly raises a lot of questions,” said Peter Annin, co-director of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College in Ashland, Wis. “Do folks in the Trump administration really want to be the ones on watch when Asian carp finally make it into the Great Lakes?”