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Turning the corner in fight against Asian carp

No fisherman ever wants to see thousands of fish suddenly doing the backstroke … unless they happen to be Asian carp.

It seems floating down Kentucky’s Cumberland River below the Lake Barkley dam were an estimated 500,000 belly-up silver carp, one of four members of the voracious feeding Asian carp family. They star in YouTube videos for leaping into moving boats, knocking people out and providing humorous sport for boaters armed with nets and baseball bats for a whack at a fish flying at them.

But the truth is it’s nothing to laugh at. It’s extremely worrisome for biologists. The Asian carp pose a huge threat to the Great Lakes’ native fish populations should they ever find a way into these lakes. There are actually four species of these carp that escaped from southern farm ponds during floods. They have gradually moved up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

To date, the focus has been on preventing them from reaching Lake Michigan via the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Concern is such that even lawsuits were filed (and failed) against Illinois by surrounding states demanding the canal be permanently closed.

The Army Corps of Engineers has said permanent closure would take 25 years to complete and cost $18 billion. But doing so would also totally disrupt Chicago's shipping economy and sewage systems. Add to that, Lake Michigan’s recreational boaters could no longer reach their dealers, marinas and boatyards located down the Illinois River, the primary source of business for those firms.

Currently, there are three electric barriers located about 50 miles below Chicago that are believed to be keeping the carp from moving farther north. However, arguably, some are now claiming those barriers could kill a person if they fell into the water or that the barriers are not a permanent solution.

But now it’s evident the focus might have to be much wider: enter Kentucky and Ohio. In the latter case, it has been known that the Asian carp have moved up the Ohio River. But a recent study indicates they are pushing north toward the Lake Erie watershed via the Muskingum River. Water samples taken from the Muskingum last fall carried the DNA signature of bighead carp, another of the Asians. The samples came from the Ellis dam and Lock 11, about 80 miles up from the Ohio River.

The Muskingum River has a series of old dams and deteriorating locks, nothing that can stop the carp’s march northward. The Muskingum links to Portage Lakes, south of Akron, and the Tuscarawas River that flows into the Muskingum also feeds into the Cuyahoga River system. Once there, it’s non-stop into Lake Erie at Cleveland.

But back to Kentucky. Dave Golowenski reported in last weekend’s Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch that no cause had been identified yet for the massive silver carp deaths. It is believed it happened fast, perhaps over just a day or two. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife officials are checking it out but what they suspect is that a virus, known to kill silver carp but not harm native fish, could be the culprit.

Could Kentucky biologists hold the answer to the Asian carp threat? I don’t know, of course, but what if there is a definite virus that kills them off? What if we could fabricate and “plant” the virus in key waterways, gaining total control of the threat without harm to our native species?

Right now, I’m pulling for those folks in Kentucky Fish and Wildlife to find the answer that will please everyone.

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