Carping criticism

You probably know far more about Tiger Woods' sex life than you do about large Asian carp. That's a serious indication of what's wrong with journalism today, and maybe this nation.

Here's what you need to know about Tiger Woods: Almost certainly, he is not going to come to your house and have sex with you, or your significant other, even if you want him to. True, your risk factor was once significantly higher if you were, say, a Las Vegas cocktail waitress who could pass for a real-life Barbie doll. But these days, even they are probably immune.

Poor old Tiger has been, it seems, bottled up, at least for now. However, the carp haven't been. They are very close to getting into Lake Michigan, if they aren't already there. And once they establish themselves in the lakes, we're in really serious trouble. You can say goodbye to any kind of fishing on the lakes. Say goodbye to the $7 billion sport fishing industry, because they'll wipe out other fish by consuming all the food.

We know this, because they've been working their way up the Mississippi River for a while. Years ago, a bunch of Arkansas fish farmers started raising these things. Flooding and stupid accidents happened, and they got in the rivers, and started spreading. Today, along some stretches of the Big Muddy, you can pull up a mess of fish, weigh them, and Asian carp will account for 95 percent of the catch's total weight.

They eat mainly phytoplankton, which is what baby fish of most species eat. Asian carp come in two varieties: silver carp and bighead carp. The bighead carp, a particularly ugly fish, gets up to 4 feet long and weighs up to a hundred pounds. They can suck down one-fifth of their weight in food every day, which means sayonara to lots of little perch, bass, bluegills, crappies and trout.

The Asian carp grow fast and breed faster, and a nice thriving population of the bastards will be the equivalent of an ecological disaster. Economic too. Michigan obviously does not need another huge industry destroyed and billions more lost.

But it gets worse from there. Although the bighead carp are larger and marginally uglier, the silver carp has the added charm of being an actual threat to kill you. Let me explain. 

These suckers weigh as much as 40 pounds, and love to jump, especially when startled by a noise. At the slightest provocation, silver carp can jump 10 feet out of the water and can, and do, whack into swimmers and boaters. Imagine the thrill of being struck in the face, hard, by a large and intensely ugly fish.

Lots of people have been badly injured by them. One woman on water skis was hit by one, broke several vertebrae and nearly drowned. A teenage boy paddling on an inner tube had his jaw broken. On some stretches of the Mississippi, it is now customary for boaters to wear helmets, at all times.

The experts knew this was coming, by the way. They've known for a long time, but did little or nothing till about two weeks ago. There's plenty of evidence that federal biologists who tried to raise the alarm years ago were told to shut up or lose their jobs. Publicly, the government was all smiles. Not to worry, they used to tell those few environmentalists and reporters who asked about the carp. Your government has it covered, yessiree bob.

Indeed, the feds did build an electric barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, a man-made waterway that connects the Mississippi River system with Lake Michigan. They knew the carp were coming, but the idea was that the barrier, completed in 2006, would zap them if they got that far.

Only one problem. They evidently didn't turn it on.  That's right. Barge operators whined. They feared their ships would be electrocuted, or set on fire, or something. So the barrier wasn't activated till last spring, and then at only a fraction of its strength. The carp evidently breezed right past.

Then a few weeks ago, the Army Corps of Engineers admitted that water samples taken in October showed that Asian carp had gotten way past the barrier. They were, in fact, at least as close as seven miles from Lake Michigan itself. Biologists then poisoned a 6-mile-long stretch of the canal to see what kinds of fish were in there. Among the thousands of dead fish they found floating was a single Asian carp. Could it be that there was only one that far north?

Not bloody likely. As a biologist from the U.S. Geological Survey told the Free Press, dead hundred-pound fish tend to sink, not float. Finding even one was bad news.

In fact, it was even enough to wake up Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Soon, she and her lieutenant governor, John Cherry, were demanding that Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox do something about this. It's hard to know what exactly they were thinking. Cherry is likely to end up as the Democratic nominee for governor next year, most likely against Cox, a Republican.

This may have been some kind of ploy to try to make Cox look bad, either by doing nothing or by failing to stop the carp. But to his credit, the attorney general did the right thing, and jumped to file lawsuits in federal court that would try to force the closing of the last potential barrier against the carp — the locks of the Sanitary and Ship Canal itself.

"Asian carp must be stopped now, because we will not have a second chance once they enter Lake Michigan," Cox told me. "He wants to seal off the Great Lakes against the contamination."

As always, those most concerned about short-term profits are squalling like mad. The American Waterways Operators, which lobbies Congress on behalf of shipping and barge operators, has indicated it will fight to keep the canal open. After all, why should we care about saving the lakes long term, when we can avoid our members losing a little money now? (A glance at the Waterways Operators' website indicates they are against tougher new standards designed to keep invasive species from coming over in ships' ballast water too.)

So what do we do?

Simple. Let's assume it isn't hopeless, and that we have a little time left. We need, each and every one of us, to lobby Congress on our own. Demand that our representatives, and those from other surrounding states, act now to close the canal.

We can take a lesson from what happened in Lansing last week.  Lobbyists had worked hard to make sure no restaurant smoking ban would ever pass. For years, they succeeded.

Yet this time, they lost. Know why? Outraged citizens sick of being disgusted, poisoned and killed by secondhand smoke besieged their state legislators, calling on them to stop the madness. 

Newly elected State Sen. Mike Nofs (R-Battle Creek) admitted it openly. He didn't want to vote for a smoking ban. He'd voted against smoking bans before. But, he said, "The one thing I did realize in talking to the people who sent me up here," was that they wanted a ban, and that he works for them.

Your congressmen and senators work for you too (translation: want to be re-elected) and can be swayed to do the right thing, if they hear from enough of us. So let them know, now. Or else, well, when the last job disappears, we can try eating Asian carp. They aren't usually poisonous, though sometimes the silver ones are.

They just taste like mud. Yum.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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