Who’s Afraid of the Bighead Carp?

A bighead carp on the Mississippi. Photo credit:  USGS

A bighead carp on the Mississippi.
Photo credit:  USGS

The New York Times recently told the tale of how the lionfish, an invasive predator, is wreaking havoc on Florida’s coral reefs, and the lengths to which people are going to control it.  It’s a familiar story of a fish from another part of the world flourishing in a new ecosystem at the expense of native species.

While it is unlikely that lionfish will come to New York’s coastal waters any time soon, our Hudson River, the Erie Canal, and possibly Lake Champlain are threatened by another fish – the Asian bighead carp.  And our only hope of keeping it out lies in Chicago.

Bighead carp have big bodies (they can grow to 100 pounds) and big appetites that can devastate freshwater ecosystems by stripping out much of the plankton that forms the foundation of the food web.  The fish is flourishing in the Mississippi watershed, and controlling them is so costly that there will be little we can do if they reach New York.

Here’s why:  political leaders only commit to major investments when they (a) are pushed hard by powerful industries or (b) see compelling threats to human safety.  Few are willing or able to seriously engage in issues otherwise, even when they understand the environmental consequences.

Since the Hudson no longer has a notable commercial fishing industry, and since the recreational fishing industry is poorly organized, there will be no powerful voices calling for action if bighead carp get into the Hudson and Erie Canal.  And the fish doesn’t threaten human lives, so that motivating factor is gone too.

But there are powerful commercial and recreational fishing interests in the Great Lakes.  Pressure from them has the Army Corps and political leaders assessing options for keeping bighead carp and other invasive fish from swimming through a series of manmade canals in Chicago that links the Mississippi drainage to the Great Lakes.  The options are all costly, ranging from $68 million to $18 billion, but with powerful interests demanding action, there’s hope.  

If we can keep bighead carp out of the Great Lakes, New York will be relatively safe.  But if we can’t, the bighead carp are coming.