The One That Got Away
They’re breaking jaws. They’re spawning lawsuits. They’re pitting states against states. Now, as Asian carp invade Minnesota, they’re even worrying the president.
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THAD COOK HAD BEEN WORKING as a biologist on the Illinois River, a few hours south of Chicago, for nearly a decade when his boat began to fall apart. The depth finder busted first, followed by the radio, the generator, and finally the fuel tank.
He wondered if this was related to the stories he’d been hearing from downriver. Weird tales of boats with no drivers, spinning wildly in the water. Men hauled ashore with lacerations. Anglers covered in blood.
Then it hit him: a 25-pounder, right in the gut. “It was like a cannonball,” he says. A few weeks later, he was struck again. Then again and again. Now just about every time he and his colleagues with the Illinois Natural History Survey go out on the water, they get pummeled. “Like we’re in a cage match with these things,” he says.
One morning, I meet the scientists at their field station in tiny Havana, Illinois, where chicken gizzards are bar food and the Illinois River, a tributary of the Mississippi, lazes past clanging industrial apparatuses. We drop a big flat-bottom boat into a backwater lake, and Cook shows me the netting he’s rigged alongside the captain’s chair like a fence—to keep things out, not in. “They’ve ripped through it anyway,” he says. He shows me the Plexiglas windshield they cracked a few weeks ago. Then he shows me how to drive the boat. “Because if you’re the last one standing...” he says. There are four of us on board.
Some boaters around here defend themselves with garbage-can lids. But Cook hasn’t stooped to that. And so he gets hit. He’s been hit in the face, the back, the crotch—everywhere you can imagine. He’s been hit so hard that an imprint, right down to the fins, was left on his chest.
“See those wakes?” he says, pointing to the water. “They’re under each one.” The wakes are everywhere.
And suddenly the lake erupts. “Incoming!” Cook yells. Even with the motor off, we’ve spooked them: Hundreds of long, silvery fish—Asian carp—are rocketing out of the water all around us, as high as seven feet in the air. They leap in great sheets, as though several football fields had been blown up.
We’re hit in the face, the back, the crotch—everywhere you can imagine.
In 30 seconds, a dozen carp are flopping around in the boat. By the time we head in, we’ll have shoveled out three boatloads of fishy missiles. In the station, we’ll wring their blood, scales, and excrement from our clothes and Cook will say he’s never seen anything like today’s bombardment—this from a guy who’s seen something similar almost every day for a decade. “I wouldn’t wish this upon anybody up in Minnesota,” he says.
Asian carp should not be confused with common carp, their bottom-feeding cousins—ubiquitous in Midwestern lakes—which were spread around the ancient Roman Empire as portable protein for soldiers before arriving in the New World in the 19th century. Asian carp were brought over in the late 1970s, from China, to do a job no American fish would or could do: clean algae from commercial catfish ponds in Arkansas. Presumably, flooding allowed them to escape into the Mississippi River, and they’ve been instinctively heading upstream ever since. Fanning out via tributaries, they’ve moved into Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Minnesota, and elsewhere. “There’s no reason to think,” one scientist told me, “that they won’t make it to Canada.”
Of the handful of Asian-carp species in the United States, silver carp (the jumpers) and bighead carp (their larger, more phlegmatic followers, which can grow to a hundred pounds) are the most worrisome. For wherever they go—and they go just about wherever they please—they act as though we’re the ones in their way. They knock boaters unconscious. They break anglers’ jaws. They knocked a kayaker out of a race last year in Iowa. Like many invasive species—what biologists call plants or animals that have spread into non-native habitats—they upset the natural balance. They have no real predators in America: They grow so big so fast that any sensible fish won’t tangle with them. And so they predominate, vacuuming up so much phytoplankton that there’s little left for other creatures. In one study, native fish living around Asian carp were far less fatty than usual, which may affect the wildlife that dine on these fish, and so on down the food chain. We tinkered with the natural order by importing the carp, and now, Thad Cook says, “It’s like Jurassic Park out there.”
The lawless nature of the invasion has inspired a similar, vigilante-like response. One band of Midwesterners, called the Carpbusters (they ain’t afraid of no fish), proclaims on their website that “we live in a broken world” and organizes posses of bow fishers near stricken waters to shoot as many carp as they can. Fishing with a bow and arrow has become kosher—and increasingly popular—in many states, including Minnesota, partly in response to the carp invasion. Skewering three or four silvers with one shot, like a fish kebab, is not uncommon. In the Cedar River running through downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa, within sniffing distance of the Quaker Oats plant and just 250 miles from Minneapolis, an archer broke the state carp record in 2009 by shooting a bighead the size of a middle-schooler.
Near Havana, locals launched the Redneck Fishing Tournament a couple of years ago, partly for fun, partly for vengeance. The only rule: no poles. Instead, mullet-headed men in hockey masks go at the silvers with tennis rackets and baseball bats, swatting the buggers like a rival gang in a literal incarnation of Rumble Fish.
Recently, politicians have joined the scrum, organizing committees, sub-committees, and study groups to address the invasion. The Mafia itself never faced such an alphabet soup: There’s the ACRRT (Asian Carp Rapid Response Team), the ACRCC (Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee), various DNRs, and dozens of environmental organizations, all pulling the strings of the official Asian-carp dragnet.
Predictably, the strings sometimes get snarled. Last July, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, along with the attorneys general of Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, sued to close a Chicago-area shipping canal that seems to have allowed Asian carp to slip into Lake Michigan and endanger the Great Lakes’ $7 billion-a-year commercial fishing industry—despite electric barriers in the canal meant to keep the fish at bay. Among the defendants in the suit is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, an ally in the fight against carp but also beholden to shipping interests.
Last August, President Barack Obama appointed an Asian-carp czar to bring order to the chaos and, in December, authorized $47 million for the fight against Asian carp—on top of the $78 million granted by Congress earlier last year. Much of it will fund ongoing studies of the problem. Closing the controversial shipping canal in Obama’s home base of Chicago does not appear to be on the czar’s agenda. “The more politicized things become,” complains one scientist, “the less that experts are asked for their thoughts.”
Through the tangled tentacles of bureaucracy, the carp swim on. In parts of the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Illinois, they’ve doubled their numbers nearly every year since settling in. In some stretches, they now account for up to 90 percent of the biomass—everything, plant or animal, that’s alive in the water. They aren’t just in America’s greatest rivers, they are the rivers.