Asian carp threat prompts crisis exercise

Federal and Ontario experts gathered in Peterborough, Ont., Friday to practice how they would respond to an invasive-species emergency in the Great Lakes.

Federal, Ont. experts practice emergency response to possible carp invasion in Great Lakes

Government emergency response experts simulated a spill of Asian carp into Ontario waters on Friday in Peterborough, Ont., as part of a preparedness exercise. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

It's not every day emergency response experts gather to test their readiness to deal with a fish.

But the Asian carp is no ordinary fish, and so on Friday, a boardroom in the Peterborough offices of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) is being turned into a temporary war room of sorts. It marks the first time government experts have come together to simulate an invasive-species emergency.

"We've run emergency-preparedness exercises before for influenza outbreaks," said Eric Boysen, director of the MNR's biodiversity branch. "We've done them for ice storms. We said we want to run one for Asian carp."

While the Great Lakes are already home to 180 invasive species, the potential for the next invader to be an Asian carp is spurring both the provincial and federal governments into action.

The spectre of this species of carp — the biggest of which can reach 1.2 metres and 45 kilograms — making its way into the Great Lakes has scientists warning of dire consequences.  They say it could gobble up massive amounts of plankton, starving out native species such as trout and walleye.

That would unravel the aquatic food web and threaten the region's $7 billion fishing industry, and on the Ontario side, a commercial fishery worth up to $215 million a year.

So together with provincial and federal fisheries biologists and policy-makers, emergency response experts are spending their Friday grappling with a scenario in which a truck importing live Asian carp slips past border officials at the Ambassador Bridge linking Detroit and Windsor.

The simulation calls for the truck to travel on one of the 400-series highways on its way to a Toronto fish market. But it will run into backups and be diverted toward the Thames River. It will then have an accident, spilling its load of live carp into the river, which leads into Lake St. Clair.

"We think it's a real possibility," says Jennifer Keyes, manager of the MNR's Great Lakes and water policy section.

"We're testing our respective organizations' readiness. How fast can we pull the right people together? Do we have all the right protocols, procedures, jurisdictional issues resolved with our partners in the [federal] Department of Fisheries and Oceans, as well as the local communities? Would we involve the local conservation authorities? What role would First Nation communities surrounding that area play?"

Altogether, eight MNR and DFO employees will run through a series of unexpected twists and turns. Watching the whole thing unfold will be about 70 people — representatives of the U.S. states bordering the Great Lakes, local conservation groups and other government employees — all hoping to learn from the exercise.

To poison or not to poison

In one scenario, authorities will learn of the accident right away, in which case the fish can be contained with nets upstream and downstream from the place they spilled into the river. When containment happens early, it's possible to pass an electrical current through the water to temporarily stun any fish in its path. The fish rise to the surface, where authorities can identify and scoop out the Asian carp in particular.

But government employees will also face the prospect of learning of the accident some hours later. In this case, they will have to decide whether to pour fish poison into the Thames. At the same time, they will be told that some endangered species of fish make their home in that stretch of the river. As Keyes points out, it will not be a decision they take lightly.

Silver carp jump out of the Illinois River after being disturbed by sounds of watercraft in May 2007. ((Nerissa Michaels/Associated Press))

Whatever the outcome, the exercise is an example of how seriously authorities are taking the potential impacts of an Asian carp invasion.

Just last week, a Markham, Ont., fish importer was fined $50,000 for driving a truckload of live Asian carp from the United States across the Windsor-Detroit border. It was the largest fine ever for an Asian carp conviction in Ontario. It was the second conviction for Feng Yang, who was also ordered to forfeit more than 1,800 kilograms of carp. And on Monday, an Indiana company caught bringing live Asian carp into Canada was fined $20,000.

Live fish are brought across the border as part of various cultural traditions that involve releasing them into waterways on special occasions, say MNR officials. 

But in 2005, Ontario introduced legislation making it illegal to posses, sell or import Asian carp and other live invasive species. That was in reaction to a scare in 2003, when Lake Erie fishermen caught three live bighead carp. DNA tests determined the fish had not grown up in the lake but had been released there as adults.

According to the Asian carp regional co-ordinating committee in the U.S., which includes federal authorities as well as state and local agencies in Illinois and Chicago, a total of five Bighead carp have been collected between 1995 and 2003 in western Lake Erie.

Carp breach barriers in U.S. waters

South of the border, most of the concern has centred on waterways in and around Chicago leading to Lake Michigan. Two types of Asian carp — bighead and silver — have been found in those waters after slowly but surely migrating up the Mississippi River.

The fast-growing and fast-breeding fish were imported from Southeast Asia in the 1970s to control algae in Arkansas aquaculture ponds, but flooding in the early 1990s allowed them to spread throughout the Mississippi watershed.

Scientists have singled out the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal — a man-made waterway built in 1900 to connect Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River Basin — as a potential conduit for the fish into the Great Lakes. Two underwater electric barriers on the canal were installed — in 2002 and 2004, respectively — to keep the fish out while allowing commercial boat traffic to continue.

But in June 2010, fishermen caught a bighead carp nearly a metre long while fishing beyond the barriers in Lake Calumet, Ill., about 10 kilometres downstream from Lake Michigan. Last year, Notre Dame biologist David Lodge led a team that found Asian carp eDNA — DNA in microscopic bits of tissue shed from the fish — in Calumet River and Calumet Harbor on Lake Michigan. 

At the time, Lodge said some Asian carp might have escaped into Lake Michigan but that he was uncertain whether there was a reproducing, self-sustaining population in the lake.

In the U.S., legislation making its way through Congress calls for an expedited study of how to separate the Mississippi and Great Lakes watersheds. Meanwhile, Ontario is supporting five U.S. states in their lawsuit currently before a federal court to close navigational locks on the canal, which would create a physical barrier against the fish making their way into Lake Michigan.

"We have to have a plan," says Boysen. "Asian carp will be a game changer in the ecosystem."

With files from The Associated Press