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Taking a Bite out of Invasive Species

After the lamprey, with its 150-plus teeth, grips the side of a fish, its rasping tongue bores into the prey, which usually cannot survive. Photo: Ted Lawrence, Great Lakes Fishery Commission

After the lamprey, with its 150-plus teeth, grips the side of a fish, its rasping tongue bores into the prey, which usually cannot survive. Photo: Ted Lawrence, Great Lakes Fishery Commission

The formation of an industry commission to confront the spread of aquatic invasives brings front and center a threat to boating and fishing that for years has been addressed by a patchwork of federal and state initiatives.

The new commission, under the leadership of NMMA president Frank Hugelmeyer, aims to bring a stronger focus on invasive species by lobbying the administration and Congress for increased actions that can stop and reverse the spread, which negatively impacts the nation’s $689 billion outdoor recreation industry.

Nowhere is there more pronounced evidence of the danger and damage invasives can trigger than in the Great Lakes. This area alone annually accounts for more than one-third of all marine industry sales and boasts a $7 billion annual fishery, mostly sport fishing. But continued resilience is not assured.

Take the sea lamprey. Native to the Atlantic, the sea lamprey has survived 350 million years in the ocean. In the 1830s, it made its way into Lake Ontario, where until the 1920s the blood-sucking menace was trapped.

That’s when the Welland Canal was created to connect Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. In just 10 years, the voracious sea lamprey was killing native fish in all five Great Lakes.

The lamprey grows to about 18 inches in the Great Lakes and prefers the angler-favorite lake trout, though they will suck the life out of most popular fish, including perch, walleye, steelhead, salmon, sturgeon and bass. It can kill up to 40 pounds of fish during its 12- to 18-month feeding period.

A Great Lakes Fishery Commission was established in 1955 by Canada and the United States to manage invasive species. At that time, lamprey were decimating the Great Lakes. Currently, a chemical control agent (lampricide) that’s harmful to lamprey but non-lethal to most native species is the preferred control method.

If you’re not sure everyone is happy, you’re right. Many environmental groups oppose the use of lampricide. A petition is underway calling for a moratorium on lampricide treatments in Vermont to protect mudpuppy salamanders. Mudpuppies are a native species that are vulnerable to lampricide.

Other invasive species include the snakehead and zebra mussels, but perhaps the greatest pending disaster for Great Lakes boating and fishing comes from carp.

Common carp have been in the United States for more than 100 years and are primarily considered by anglers a nuisance fish. I threw back many while fishing in Lake Erie. However, the newest potential Great Lakes invaders are bighead carp, black carp, grass carp and silver carp — collectively known as Asian carp.

Invasive silver carp.

Invasive silver carp.

Asian carp are already causing issues in the Mississippi River and connected waterways, and they are point-blank aiming to gain access to Lake Michigan, which would eventually give them entree to all the Great Lakes. They are restrained from entering Lake Michigan by dams, electric “fences” and bubble systems in the Illinois waterway.

Invasive carp are fast-growing, prolific breeders and voracious feeders that will out-compete native fish for food and leave a trail of environmental destruction in their wake.

The formation of the Aquatic Invasive Species Commission is most timely. In addition to NMMA, it’s spearheaded by some of the biggest names in outdoor recreation including Yamaha, Yeti, BoatUS, B.A.S.S., the American Sportfishing Association, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

The group will tasked with advancing funding in what will surely be a long-term quest to address invasive species, and keep boating and fishing viable.

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