Marlin Levison  /  Star Tribune file
Black Asian carp like these, which were being fished out of the Illinois River in Peoria, Ill., are at the center of a debate over whether to ban imports so that they don't get into the Great Lakes.
updated 10/3/2005 1:34:27 PM ET 2005-10-03T17:34:27

A North-South fish fight is erupting in Congress over legislation to ban imports of Asian carp, a critter that southern fish farmers depend on to control parasites, but which officials of Great Lakes states fear will wreak havoc on the lakes’ ecosystems.

Fish farmers in states including Arkansas and Mississippi imported the voracious species from China. It eats snails, and that helps the fish farmers control parasites.

Some carp have escaped the farms and made their way north along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, and could soon be knocking on the Great Lakes’ doors. An electric barrier south of Chicago, which gives the fish a non-lethal bolt, is designed to prevent them from entering Lake Michigan. Asian carp, which often leap out of the water, can grow to more than 100 pounds.

Three years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed banning the importation of black carp, a species of Asian carp that Southern fish farmers use, but the agency has not acted on its proposal.

“The time for talking and reviewing and studying is over,” said Rep. Mark Green, a Wisconsin Republican who sponsored legislation to ban importation and interstate transfer of Asian carp. “I don’t want us to wait until it’s too late.”

Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, has sponsored companion legislation.

Shawn Finely, a Fish and Wildlife legislative specialist, said the agency has to take into account the aquaculture industry in finalizing the rule.

“We are taking our time,” she said. “We feel we need to look at the environmental and economic impacts.”

No substitute found
Hugh Warren, executive director of the Catfish Farmers of America, said there is no other way to control the parasite problems than using black carp.

“We’ve investigated other kinds of fish, but we haven’t found a successful substitute,” said Warren, a catfish farmer from Greenwood, Miss. “If there were, we would use it.”

Alien invadersJay Rendall, invasive species program coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said the Asian carp species are voracious eaters of mollusks, plankton and vegetation.

“If you put them altogether, they’re consuming most of the food chain,” he said. “If we get them in large numbers, they would reduce the plankton that other fish need.”

The Great Lakes region, the world’s largest surface freshwater system, is already battling other exotic species, such as zebra mussels.

In August, Fish and Wildlife asked for comments on an alternative rule that would ban only fertile black carp, which would allow fish farmers to import and transport sterile versions.

Mike Freeze, a fish farmer in Keo, Ark., said the industry is adamant that any ban be limited to fertile carp.

“Until we can find a native species to replace it, or until we can get a chemical approved by the federal government, we’re reluctant to give up the only way we have to control these parasites,” Freeze said.

Concerns about sterile-fish idea
Green, the Wisconsin congressman, said he was skeptical of such a modified ban.

“There are real issues of enforceability,” he said. “How does one check? How do you enforce that?”

Green added that the track record on precautions against containing the fish has not been good. “I just don’t think that buying time to construct bioengineered alternatives is the right answer,” he said.

Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., who opposes Green’s bill, said the issue is best left to Fish and Wildlife.

“I just don’t think it should be the business of the U.S. Congress to micromanage issues like this,” he said. “This is the equivalent of making the U.S. Congress the National School Board. If this became law, it would create huge problems for the aquaculture industry in Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri and Louisiana.”

But Green, who is running for governor of Wisconsin, said the fish will cause huge problems for his region if no action is taken.

“Lake Michigan is part of our way of life in Wisconsin — from the recreation industry to commercial fishing,” he said. “Invasive species represents a very serious threat.”

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