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AQUATIC INVADERS NEAR GREAT LAKES
ASIAN CARP INFILTRATION COULD SPARK CONSUMPTION NIGHTMARE

Walleye season opens in May, and bass season begins in June.

But will anglers find the fish they covet in the years to come as they troll or cast in lakes Erie and Ontario?

That may depend on an invisible, underwater electric barrier the federal government is building near Chicago to keep the latest high-profile aquatic invaders out of the Great Lakes.

These nasty fish -- called Asian carp -- can weigh up to 100 pounds.

They can jump as high as 10 feet out of the water -- and have injured boaters, jetskiers and marine biologists.

They also possess a nearly insatiable appetite -- often eating up to half their body weight each day in the microscopic plants and animals, called plankton, that are at the base of the Great Lakes food chain.

Observers are nervous about the impact that kind of consumption would have on a fishery that industry analysts value at $4 billion to $6 billion.

"It's an eating machine," Doug Stein, a charter boat captain on Grand Island, said of the invading species. "Imagine having a whole bunch of carp in the system eating up everything in sight."

These invaders wait at the Great Lakes' door.

They have advanced up the Mississippi River to the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which connects the river to the lakes.

Scientists believe the carp have come to within 22 miles of a temporary electric barrier in the canal, and to within about 50 miles of Lake Michigan.

A second barrier, which should last up to 20 years, is under construction at a cost of $9.1 million and should be ready by summer.

Once the carp get into Lake Michigan, biologists expect it wouldn't be too long before they show up in all the Great Lakes, including Lake Erie.

Scientists, sportsmen and environmentalists cringe at the thought of the carp breaching the barriers.

"The worst scenario?" asked Jennifer Nalbone with Great Lakes United, the environmental group known for its advocacy on behalf of the lakes. "Five giant carp ponds."

Brought to this country 20 years ago as a means of controlling algae, plants and parasites on catfish farms along the Mississippi, several species of Asian carp escaped those farms during floods in the early 1980s and 1990s. In less than a decade, the carp have become dominant on parts of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, according to Pam Thiel, who monitors invasive species for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Once they establish themselves, if they are more than 12 to 15 inches long, there's nothing out there that can physically stuff (the carp) down their mouth," she said. "That means those fish can stay out there and keep growing."

The bighead carp is the largest of the group, with some examples growing to 4 feet long and 100 pounds.

But the silver carp has drawn the most attention, mainly because of its spectacular leaping ability.

Thiel said many people on the river marveled at the sight -- until the leaping fish started hitting boaters and jetskiers. She said a number of her colleagues have been hit by silver carp, including one who went on disability due to a back injury.

One scientist said he was hit so hard, it knocked a filling out of his mouth, while another said a flying silver carp broke her nose.

Officials are eager to keep the Asian carp out of the Great Lakes because of the fear they will compete for the food that small fish eat.

Those fish, in turn, are consumed by the larger fish that anglers desire.

"We have a lot of other species that are plankton feeders," said Bill Culligan with the state Department of Environmental Conservation's Great Lakes Fisheries unit in Dunkirk. "If (the carp) impact our forage fish, there could be a serious impact to fish like smallmouth bass, walleye and trout."

Charter captains and area sportsmen like Tom Marks, who serves as the Great Lakes Sport Fishing Council's New York director, believe the carp would do well in the lakes.

"They probably won't do quite as well because the lakes aren't as fertile as the river," he said, "but . . . they will expand."

e-mail: jbonfatti@buffnews.com

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