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.

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.

The farthest north that Asian carp have been reported in North America, albeit in small numbers, is Minnesota, specifically Lake Pepin, the scenic bulge in the Mississippi River where water skiing—not a recommended activity around Asian carp—was reputedly invented.

But some scientists told me the fish could easily be as far north as the Twin Cities. No one knows for certain, as there’s little if any routine fish monitoring in the Mississippi north of Red Wing. But that’s no reason to assume the fish aren’t there, says Steven Gutreuter, a research statistician with the Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. “I would not be surprised,” he says, “if some Asian carp have already made it up to St. Anthony Falls”—swimming within sight of the Guthrie Theater.

That wouldn’t surprise Peter Sorensen either. The University of Minnesota scientist has studied carp of all kinds for about six years. “These are the only Asian carp legally in Minnesota,” he says wryly as we peer into giant, well-sealed tanks in a St. Paul building he’d prefer I not identify. Pranksters might release the carp into the wild, and “the last thing I need,” Sorensen says, “is to be known as the guy who ruined everything.”

The fish look almost innocent. They’re juveniles, no more than three inches long, used by Sorensen’s students for experiments with carp barriers and carp physiology. The mouth of an Asian carp is at the top of the head, the eyes at the bottom, the better to feed at the water’s surface. The fish look slightly out of whack, pathetic even, like they’d be bullied down at the local sandbar—like a minnow.

Which is technically what they are: the largest, most annoying members of the minnow family. Sorensen has come to admire carp, the way Holmes admired Moriarty. They learn to avoid nets. They thrive in polluted waters. They have terrific hearing, are strong swimmers, and are some of the most fecund animals on earth: Bighead females can produce more than a million eggs at a time. “They’re really impressive,” Sorensen says.

All the same, he’d prefer them dead. Asian carp are wired to spawn whenever the water rises around them—as during a flood—up to several times a year. Their populations tend to remain low after they invade new territory, until a few good, consecutive years of spawning. Then, as biologists put it, their numbers “pop” and you get something like the scenario in Havana. In the last couple of years, they’ve popped in Kansas City and on the Wabash River in central Indiana. A few good spawns in Minnesota, starting with protracted flooding this spring from all the snow in the Upper Midwest, and they could pop here any year now.

If left unchecked, Asian carp could fan out into any Minnesota river long and straight enough to suit their spawning. They could invade any lake with an outlet to such a river, including some of the best walleye fishing spots. They could permanently change the way we view our state—especially from an unprotected boat.

Sorensen doesn’t foresee us stopping them. Not because we couldn’t develop the tools (“It’s a fish, okay?” he says. “We put a man on the moon!”), but because we haven’t. And we’ve had more than 30 years to do so. Only now are Sorensen and other scientists across the country getting grants to experiment with gizmos like underwater barriers that would limit the carp’s spread, and they’re still years—and a lot more money—from implementation. “This is a four-alarm fire,” Sorensen says. “And we’ve got nothing to put it out with.” Instead, he bemoans, the state of Illinois is arguing against closing the Chicago shipping canal by vaguely suggesting that there might not be enough plankton in the Great Lakes to sustain the invading carp. “Might not?” Sorenson asks. “As a biologist, I don’t think that’s a satisfactory risk we should take.

“Think of it this way,” he says. “If your neighbor had cholera—if it was a human disease we were talking about—we wouldn’t be reacting like this. Invasive species are like a cancer on the environment. And, as we did with cancer, we need to be focused in attacking them. It would help if people looked at it that way.”

Minnesotans could be forgiven for still thinking of Asian carp as a “downriver” problem, like hurricanes, nutria rats, and voodoo. Compared to the carp’s invasion of Lake Michigan, its voyage into the upper reaches of the Mississippi River has been relatively unheralded.

For years, the fish were more or less contained by the dam crossing the Mississippi at Keokuk, Iowa, near the Missouri border. It’s a huge span, some 4,620 feet long; when it became operational, in 1913, it was second only in length to the Aswan Dam straddling the Nile in Egypt. More important, it’s tall—there’s a 38-foot difference between the pool above it and the river below—making it a formidable fish barrier. Even today, the Keokuk dam is considered the front line in the Asian-carp invasion of the Mississippi: Above it, the carp are numerous but not abundant; below it, they’re predominant, as inevitable as pigeons on a statue.

But enough carp have breached the fortress now to sustain the northward invasion, and, on a recent visit to the dam, I can see why. For one thing, there’s a lock. And although Asian carp are bothered by motor noise (thus all the jumping around boats), they’re capable of locking through when boats do. Also, there’s simply a lot of carp on the southern side of the dam.

“There’s shitloads of ’em,” a man fishing near the lock informs me. “This river is thick with ’em.” And since the carp are dead ringers for gizzard shad, a fish that anglers like this old-timer net from the river to use as catfish bait, it’s easy to accidentally net some juvenile Asian carp, throw them in a bait bucket, and never notice the difference. “I’ve seen guys fishing with ’em over there,” the old-timer tells me, pointing to the north side of the dam. When they’re done fishing, he says, they simply toss the bait fish in the water. And upstream go the carp.

Once beyond Keokuk, the carp can swim around or even over smaller dams during floods—the Corps of Engineers raises dam gates out of the water whenever the water levels above and below a dam equal out, as the dam isn’t serving any navigational purpose then (it’s said to be “out of control”), creating a clear passage. The record flooding of 2008 seems to have given the carp a big push; they’ve turned up in Iowa far west of the Mississippi, and in great numbers, like sand deposited by a wave.

If Minnesotans are largely unaware of the invasion happening right beneath their boats, it may be a result of how Asian-carp sightings are reported here. If a commercial fisherman working the river finds an Asian carp among his catch, he might or might not call the local DNR office, which might or might not care, depending on whether the fish was caught where they would expect to find it. The fisherman might or might not have kept the carp to show them. The DNR might or might not write a press release. The local newspaper might or might not publish it. In the last five years, only a handful of Asian-carp catches in Minnesota waters have made the news, giving the impression of isolated fish arrested like terrorists before they could do any harm.

To gauge how many Asian carp are actually here, I drive to Lake Pepin one fall afternoon, curious if there are already enough there to make an impression on the people living around them. I ask the employees working at the area’s largest marina, in Lake City, if they’ve seen any Asian carp. None of them say they have. Same with the men in shorts and deck shoes walking out to their sailboats. “If they were out there,” one guy says while wrenching apart the huge twin propellers of his speedboat, “I’d know it.”

But on my way out of town, I notice a handful of men standing beside a doublewide in a trailer park. They’re old-timers, greybeards—the kind of men who would notice something different in the water—and they’re cleaning fish. The oldest one is wearing a sweatshirt that just says “Fishing” on it. “Yep,” his buddy tells me. “Seen two.”

“Silver or bighead?”

“Silver. An’ uglier than heck. Jumped like crazy.”

Another guy points at the lake with the can of Natural Ice beer in his hand and says that a commercial fisherman, working the lake’s backwaters near Stockholm, Wisconsin, found a half-dozen Asian carp in his catch just that morning.

“They’re here,” he says. And as I walk away, he shouts, “Give ’em hell!”

Bringing the fight to unwanted fish is officially the job of the government. Invasive species take an estimated $100 billion bite out of the American economy every year, largely in crop and timber losses. So the government secures our natural borders against alien invasion, as it were, just as it patrols our national boundaries. Over the last hundred years, we’ve dumped chemicals in the water, released wasps to control beetles, released beetles to control plants, and even created sterile sea lampreys to lure virile ones to their doom—all in a delicate effort to manage nature without making it too, well, unnatural.

In Minnesota, such management is the work of the Department of Natural Resources—the DNR, which is headquartered on the east side of St. Paul in a glass-and-steel office building, nondescript except for the taxidermied deer in the entryway. In the building’s cafeteria, I meet with Jay Rendall, the state’s invasive-species prevention coordinator. He’s middle-aged, wearing a fleece vest of the sort you might bring on a hike, and has the methodical manner of one accustomed to forces beyond his control, like nature and politics.

“What’s an invasive species?” he asks rhetorically. “Anything that comes from somewhere else.” He reads from a list of Minnesota invaders: “Zebra mussels, rusty crayfish, faucet snails, spiny waterfleas, round gobies, earthworms….” It’s a long list.

Minnesota, Rendall points out, has the mixed blessing of being connected to the two biggest water systems in North America: the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes, which bring ships to our shores from across the world—along with some undesirable hitchhikers. Rendall shows me a graph depicting the number of invasive species introduced into the Great Lakes in the last 150 years. There’s a huge spike after 1960 that never really goes back down: The St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959. Minnesota is also believed to harbor more boats per capita than any other state—which would be fine if people didn’t drag them from lake to lake, spreading pests and, ironically, destroying the environment they bought the boats to enjoy.

The DNR couldn’t begin to subdue every alien species, Rendall says, so it prioritizes. Some species are relatively harmless. Others have become so ubiquitous, like pigeons, that the cost of eradication would be unreasonable. Right now, Rendall says, the DNR’s public enemy No. 1 is probably the zebra mussel, a fingernail-size native of Russia that, among other iniquities, clogs boat motors and starves out competing species.

Asian carp are a ways down the list. “They’re not in Minnesota yet—officially,” Rendall says. “We’re in the prevention, not management, stage for them.” And much of the prevention effort has been thwarted by a lack of cash.

“We thought at first that we’d get a barrier erected on the Mississippi down in Iowa,” Rendall says. “When the money for that didn’t come through, we thought we’d get one on the border.” That didn’t happen either. Nor did a barrier proposed for a spot even farther upriver. A barrier wouldn’t be that expensive: $4 million—about what Matt Entenza spent of his own money running for governor last year. The problem, Rendall says, is that anything built on the Mississippi River, a federal waterway, must involve the Corps of Engineers, which necessitates federal funding. Since a fish barrier would be a localized project, that essentially means earmark funding—suddenly the scourge of Congress.

“We’ve talked to the Congressional delegation I don’t know how many times,” Rendall says with a smile of exasperation. “Is helping Minnesota a federal priority? If that’s not what politicians and society want then I don’t know what else we can do.”

The DNR’s latest thought is to retrofit the decommissioned Coon Rapids Dam, north of Minneapolis, as a fish barrier. That, I point out, would mean conceding the Mississippi to carp all the way to the Twin Cities.

“Look,” Rendall says, his equanimity beginning to waver, “I wish we could do more.” He throws up his hands. “But I’ve got 10,000 people yelling at me to do something about zebra mussels.”

In the absence of law and order, vigilantes have always risen up: Doc Holliday, Bernie Goetz, the Carpbusters. And guys like Reggie McLeod, who just wants to eat the carp. McLeod lives in Winona and is the editor and publisher of Big River magazine, which covers life along the Mississippi. He’s observed the carp invasion from the beginning, and he thinks the problem isn’t the fish—it’s us.

McLeod is tall, graying, and as laidback as the river he’s reported on for decades. And every time he eats at a restaurant, he asks for carp. He hasn’t found a restaurant yet that serves it—not even Buzzard Billy’s Flying Carp Café in La Crosse—but he asks anyway, just to make a point. “What, you took it off the menu?” he jokes. He thinks we should all be eating Asian carp, which are bony but mild-tasting, at least as good as whatever is in fish sticks. And then, because humans have a remarkable ability to eat other species to the point of extinction, problem solved.

But no one’s hungry for carp. For the past two years, Big River has sponsored a carp recipe contest, challenging restaurants to come up with dishes. No one has bit, even as the state of Illinois signed a deal last year to export nearly 30 million pounds of Asian carp to Chinese supermarkets.

“It mystifies me,” McLeod says. “Our tastes are so culturally prejudiced. Lobsters and shrimp—they’re basically bugs. Oysters are slugs with shells. Heck, the Flying Carp Café serves alligator—that’s a lizard. We eat bugs, slugs, and lizards, but not carp? I hold the chefs of the Midwest responsible for that.”

Could it really be that simple? I ask Peter Sorensen one day in his office if he thinks we can eat our way out of the carp invasion, and he says, “Of course. If we all wanted to eat carp, we wouldn’t be talking about them now.” But, he predicts, we’ll become accustomed to living with Asian carp before we ever decide to eat them, just as we’ve grown accustomed to common carp.

“Look at this,” Sorensen says and shows me a government flier sent out shortly after common carp were brought to America in the late 19th century. The government imported the carp from Europe to help immigrants feel more at home. It raised them, improbably, in the reflecting pool near the Washington Monument, then shipped them out in boxcars. In about 10 years, the immigrants wanted them gone, as the carp began to turn lakes turbid. As recently as the 1980s, the DNRs of many states spent a great deal of time netting carp. Then, with costs rising, they gave up.

The antique government flier implores citizens to round up the carp: Catch the Carp! Eat the carp! Smoke the carp!—much like anti-carp activists are pushing today. “It’s exactly the same thing—exactly!” Sorenson says. “History is repeating itself.”

But for now there’s a carp czar. And there’s $47 million in new money to wage war against the carp and labs across the country eager for the ammunition, including the Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center in La Crosse. Within its bunker-like complex beside the Mississippi, dozens of scientists buzz about. In the basement are tanks where up to 15 species of fish are kept at any one time—the place can replicate any kind of water chemistry that exists in nature. One scientist is testing the DNA and RNA of Asian carp and similar rough fish, to see if poisons can be developed to specifically attack their unique physiologies. Others are studying whether chemicals used to manage fish have lingering effects on animals and people.

They are tinkering—because of a fish, but mostly because of us. Because we tinker with nature every day, managing it, fouling it, moving it around. And now we must keep tinkering, or nature—the nature we’d like to keep—will collapse. We’ve unleashed too many monsters.
“Have you heard of the snakehead?” one of the scientists asks me.

It’s a kind of fish, he says, but it looks like a python with fins. It can survive up to four days out of water. It can even portage, waddling for short distances across land. It came from China, eats anything it can wrap its teeth around, and has no known enemies in America. It’s on the East Coast now. But it’s coming.