During his 30 years in the Arkansas fish industry, Mike Freeze has watched federal and state government agencies change from being cheerleaders to exterminators when it comes to Asian carp.
Freeze is a former Arkansas Game and Fish commissioner who worked for the agency in the late 1970s. He knew the fish farmers who were then importing, cultivating and researching silver and bighead carp — and who are now often blamed in media reports for allowing their release.
That's not the whole story, Freeze says. Those farmers were receiving help, guidance and funding from the federal government as well as the state because it was then thought the fish — collectively known as Asian carp along with the black and grass varieties — held promise for environmental cleanup and plant control. Silver and bighead carp are considered the problem species.
"One project was trying to see if silver and bighead carp could be used to clean up human sewage," Freeze says. Another project he remembers involved an Illinois researcher who was trying to use Asian carp to clean up hog manure. "He would go to Arkansas and get truckloads of silver and bigheads. He'd take them back and use them on their facility," Freeze says. "They don't want you to know that."
His assertions about governmental involvement are supported by documents from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Arkansas that Metro Times obtained, as well as in interviews with researchers and government officials.
"The public sectors, including universities and state and federal entities, have contributed significantly to at least one importation of the black carp, the spawning and probable release into natural waters of the silver and bighead carps, and the distribution and use of all three species," reads a 2008 report from researchers at the National Aquaculture Research Center in Stuttgart, Ark., and the University of Arkansas.
Mark Oliver, chief of fisheries for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency funded some of those studies in the 1970s that were done by state employees and private fish farmers. "We know now it was maybe not the best idea," Oliver says.
Some of the silver and bighead carp escaped from farms in Arkansas and Mississippi and migrated up the Mississippi River, says Kevin Irons, an ecologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey at the Illinois River Biological Station. He admits the survey-funded research in ponds on hog farms but says only in ponds without connections to the waterway network. "There's no evidence that those escaped into the wild," he says. "It was a good use of this fish."
But the carp — wherever they came from — did infest other inland waterways, displacing native fish and ruining recreational boating industries. The silver carp, which can grow to more than 4 feet long and 100 pounds, are agitated by motors and leap out of the water, creating a hazard for boaters. Advocates for the Great Lakes fear they are a threat to the $7 billion-a-year fishing industry.
Nick Schroeck, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center in Detroit, says that, in addition to state agencies in Illinois and Arkansas breeding and studying the fish, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the EPA have published research and other federal studies date back to the 1970s. Two studies are available on the Center's website — greatlakeslaw.org — and the center has filed a Freedom of Information request with the EPA to learn the extent of that agency's work. Schroeck is waiting for the EPA's response.
With the U.S. Supreme Court poised this week to decide whether it will hear Michigan's request to re-open a case and order the closure of Illinois waterways to Lake Michigan, Schroeck says the government's involvement in the early Asian carp studies needs to be considered in legal decisions and future public policy.
"It's disingenuous for the federal government to say right now that they're doing all they can to combat this problem and not admitting that they're one of the major culprits in creating the problem. It's important to tell the public that side of the story," Schroeck says. "It's important to show that there were all these different points of entry. Each and every one of them had federal funding and federal personnel involved."
Ted McNulty, director of the aquaculture division for the Arkansas Agriculture Department, says he saw firsthand the federal agencies' involvement in research and fish cultivation in Arkansas during the 1970s.
"A lot of it was funded from a grant from the EPA, because they wanted these fish to clean up sewer lagoons as part of the Clean Water Act. … U.S. Fish and Wildlife assisted them. Part of it was money, and even U.S. Fish and Wildlife employees examined fish coming into the United States and helped the farmers fill out the paperwork to get them in," he says. "They've put money into researching these carp and encouraging farmers to raise them."
Ashley Spratt, a spokeswoman with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, says her agency only had involvement with bringing grass carp to the United States, not the troublesome silver or bighead species.
EPA spokesman Dale Kemery told Metro Times he could not confirm nor describe the EPA's work related to carp 30 years ago. Now, he says, the agency operates the electric barrier that is currently the last defense between the carp and the Great Lakes.
While Illinois officials insist the barrier is working, Michigan and other Great Lakes states want the Illinois waterways separated from Lake Michigan. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and U.S. Rep. Dave Camp (R-Midland) have introduced bills in Congress that would force the government to close the locks.
Camp's spokeswoman, Lauren Phillips, says his office was not aware of the federal agencies' roles in the original Asian carp industry.
"It's extremely troubling," she says. "As more information becomes available, we'll be looking at what to do."Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]