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Asian carp have been making their way up the Mississippi River system for years after escaping from fish farms and wastewater treatment ponds in the southern U.S.They’re knocking on the door of the Great Lakes, and a number of people are concerned about what could happen if carp become established in the region.In this five-part series, we’ll take a look at what officials are trying to do to keep the fish out, what might happen if carp get in, and why some people want to turn carp into a business opportunity.

To prepare for invasive Asian carp, DNR tests its carp-catching skills

This week, the Department of Natural Resources went through a big training drill that’s a first of its kind in Michigan. The drill is supposed to prepare the agency for what to do if the Asian carp makes its way into Michigan’s rivers.

A dozen boats stamped with the DNR logo line the shores of the St. Joseph River. Some of them are normal fishing boats.

But a few have these metal poles sticking out about three feet in front of the boat. At the end of each pole are these long pieces of metal cable that hang down in the water.

The DNR’s Todd Somers is the foreman of one of these homemade boats. He points out a 240-volt generator near the back of the boat. It can deliver up to 16 amps through the metal poles at the front of the boat; sending electric shocks through the cables into the river. That’ll stun any fish nearby.

"It’s a lot of electricity. It’s very dangerous," he said.

So dangerous they didn’t let reporters like me climb aboard to watch the drill.

Somers says electrofishing isn’t as easy as you’d think

"When the fish gets shocked, he doesn’t actually get stunned completely, he’s still wiggling a little bit. Lot of times they’ll come up to the top but most of the time you've got to go after him down on the bottom," Somers said. He says the carp try to hide among logs or in pits at the river bottom.

To be clear – there are no Asian carp here in the St. Joseph River... yet.

There are electric barriers in the shipping canals near Chicago. Experts hope will keep them at bay. But as Tom Goniea, a senior fish biologist with the DNR, explains:

"If they get into Lake Michigan they’ve got two choices; they can go left or they can go right. If they go right they’re going to go up the Lake Michigan coastline. The very first major river they’re going to encounter would be the St. Joe," he said.

This drill is a test of that scenario. If Asian carp escaped, would the DNR’s first responders – the fisheries team – would they be able to catch them? This week the entire division, 26 people, took part in the practice drill.

To find out, the DNR used regular old carp (namely grass and black carp) already living in the St. Joe as target practice.

"Common carp are similar to big head and silver carp in terms of their size, their body shape, their same tendency to use those big holes," Goniea said.

Common carp are rounded up, zapped, netted, tagged and released. Then they try again using a different technique. They do this over and over again.

"The primary objective of this is to see how efficient we are at recapturing those fish. So we caught them once, was it dumb luck? Can we do it again?"

They hope such an effort would stop, or at least slow Asian carp down, if they got into Michigan rivers like the St. Joe - rivers that appear to be good spawning habitat for the invasive fish.

“We’re we prepared yesterday? Sure, we were prepared,” said Tammy Newcomb, Senior Water Policy Advisor at the DNR said of the potential for an Asian Carp invasion.

“But this is going to help us be better prepared and have a greater understanding of things like - how to deploy our traditional gear. As well as, what is the efficiency of that gear? Because questions will come to bear as to how long do we need to do something like this? What is our chances of actually catching fish when we do operations like this?”

Newcomb says researchers will analyze data from the drill. They expect to have results within a couple of weeks. 

Throwing a wider net

Biologists have been searching for the carp in the waters near Chicago and Lake Erie over the past several years. Now, they want to search other places in the Great Lakes.

Charlie Wooley is the deputy regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He’s part of a group of federal and state agencies that are trying to control Asian carp and keep them out of the Great Lakes. He says this year, they’re stepping up their efforts to search for carp. They do this by looking for genetic material.

“There is a new focus on using environmental DNA, eDNA, in the Great Lakes as an early warning system to see if there’s any possible way Asian carp may have gotten into either southern Lake Michigan, western Lake Erie, Lake Huron or even Lake Superior.”

He says federal scientists are also working on a way to control Asian carp in rivers. They’re developing a targeted poison that would only kill bighead and silver carp but not other fish.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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