Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Asian Carp - aliens are really among us

Canada and the United States share stewardship of one of the world's treasures. The Great Lakes provide fresh water, a commercial fishing industry, passageway for international and domestic vessel traffic through the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System, and a multitude of leisure activities. Environmental issues concerning the health and safety for this international treasure have been raised for decades, with government response from either side of the shoreline at best slow in coming.

Today we have come to understand the environmental impact of our daily routines on the future of sustainability of our planet. There are those who will argue the validity of the issues surrounding climate change, yet one environmental concern that cannot be disputed is the damage caused by alien species to world habitats. These are not little green men landing on flying saucers nor the Fox Mulder of X-Files fame versions. The Canadian Government Invasive Alien Species Strategy for Canada 2004 defines them as following; “Alien species are species of plants, animals, and micro-organisms introduced by human action outside their natural past or present distribution. Invasive alien species are those harmful alien species whose introduction or spread threatens the environment, the economy, or society, including human health. Invasive alien species can originate from other continents, neighbouring countries, or from other ecosystems within Canada.” The most alarming point in this definition is the fact that these alien species all had been introduced by human action.

Alien species do not choose only a particular country to wreak havoc upon, they are a global concern and are considered to be the greatest threat to biodiversity after habitat loss. In Canada we have sixteen alien species with annual economic costs ranging between $13.3 and $34.5 billion. Globally the costs are staggering, estimated at $1.4 trillion annually, that is some 5% of the total global economy, as compared to $190 billion for natural disasters. (Ministry of Natural Resources, Invasive Species Centre – 2010 Strategic Plan)

It may be difficult for some to envision the comparison of these alien species to the might of a hurricane Sandy, or a wall of water stretching dozens of feet towards the sky as a result of a tsunami. Still the overall cost of these biological aliens threatens the natural environment, our over-stretched economy and can affect human health. Governments globally work in partnership with both commercial and environmental groups, and the public to battle and control these aliens. In the end we all share the burden and its costs.

On November 8th 2012, a public forum was held in Toronto addressing the issues in relation to one of the alien species that we are dealing with. The Asian Carp has become apparently a serious public enemy to the Great Lakes. It is potentially a big fish ranging from 3 to 5 feet in length. Originally introduced to North America in the 1970's to control algae in aquaculture ponds in the southern United States. As many of man's great ideas it got out of control and the Asian Carp got away. So unlike the fisherman who would rather not speak of the one that got away, it seems we are all speaking of this one.

Asian Carp Public Forum, held in Toronto Nov. 8, 2012 

The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative in fact presented a joint forum of US and Canadian experts, government officials to explain how the Asian Carp can be a threat to our waterways, and the many methods being put in place to monitor its migration. The GLSLCI is a bi-national coalition of mayors and other local officials that works actively with federal, state and provincial governments to advance the protection and restoration of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. A full out war has been declared against the Asian Carp, even though it is only one of the sixteen invasive species that we are dealing with in Canada.

As an invasive species the Asian Carp is a formidable fish, with a number of varieties. The most common varieties found in North America are the Bighead, Silver, Grass and Black Carp. It is the Bighead Carp and the Silver Carp that have spread the most aggressively and can be considered one of the greatest threats to the Great Lakes. At least both the US and Canadian authorities portray this 'menace' as one of the greatest threats.


The Asian Carp is not the only alien that threatens global biodiversity and that of Canada. Other alien species such as the European Green Crab which preys on mussels, clams and other crabs, threatening shellfish stocks on the Atlantic coast; Purple Loosestrife, a European invader introduced to Canada in the 1800's, degrades wetlands; Zebra Mussel, industries with operations on the Great Lakes spend millions of dollars a year dealing with zebra mussels, which multiply so quickly that they clog intake pipes and sink navigational buoys; Sea Lamprey is a primitive, parasitic fish, these eel-like creatures with suction cup, bloodsucking mouths can kill more than 18 kg of the fish they prey on during their 12 to 20 month adult life; Emerald Ash Borer originated in Eastern Asia and was first found in Canada in 2002, its larvae burrow through the inner bark of ash trees while the young beetles feed on leaves, damaging and eventually killing the tree; and there are more such as the Didymo also known as “rock snot,” Gypsy Moth, Asian Long-Horned Beetle and Round Goby.

The list of invasive species seems to grow and the variety of species increase, at the same time as threatening our ecosystems, the economic cost rises just as quickly. In Montreal, April 2009, the Trinational (Canada, US and Mexico) Commission for Environmental Cooperation confirmed that economic losses and costs of environmental impacts caused by invasive species exceed $100 billion annually in the US alone.

In Ontario the total impact of the zebra mussel is estimated to be between $75 to $91 million per year (Ministry of Natural Resources, Ontario Invasive Species – Strategic Plan 2012). The Emerald Ash Borer has killed over one million trees in south western Ontario, and the City of Toronto estimated it will cost $37 million over five years to cut and replace the city owned trees. At the same time the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has spent over $30 million to cut over 130,000 trees to slow the spread of the beetle.

Invasive species do not terrorize the trinational partners, Canada, US and Mexico alone. As already stated global impact from those aliens reach a staggering $1.4 trillion and considered a great threat to biodiversity. In Great Britain researchers at Queen Mary, University of London estimated the impact of invasive species in the Thames River at $2.7 billion a year. According to Brian Clark Howard of National Geographic News in Water Currents on November 2nd 2012, “a recent study suggests the Thames River is among the world's most invaded systems,” (Thames River Invasive Species; Freshwater Species of the Week, National Geographic News, Nov. 2nd 2012).

Maybe little green men would be easier to deal with, yet the issue we face in relation to both ecological and economic stresses from these invasive species is very serious. There may be questions raised at what motivates such an all out war on one of the aliens when that alien can in fact be eaten. The Asian Carp is not poisonous nor is it destructive as the Sea Lamprey. It is a food source in a great part of the world. Instead we in North America have a policy which resulted in almost 4000 pounds of Asian Carp seized which was destined for the Ontario markets in 2010 (CBC News, Nov. 9, 2012).

According to information released by the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) shipments of Asian Carp have been seized at border crossings and companies have faced stiff fines. Some examples that have been provided list seizures at the Windsor crossing for January 9th and 25th and February 28th 2012 totalling 23,400 lbs. In 2011 one importer was fined by the Province of Ontario for $60,000 another was fined $20,000, and in June 2012 a Toronto fish company and its president were fined a total of $50,000 (Canadian Border Services Agency fact sheet). At the Asian Carp Public Forum held on November 8th 2012 one of the points that was discussed was in fact the penalties and heavy enforcement of the laws in relation to the importing of Asian Carp into North America. With several uniformed individuals walking around with firearms on their hips left no doubt in anyone's mind how serious a threat these fish are considered to be.

Canada has committed $17 million to the battle zone against the alien. The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, which coordinated the forum was instituted to advance the protection and restoration of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, yet no such forums have been arranged to deal with the issues of contaminates that are poured into our Great Lakes daily. The Great Lakes contain six quadrillion gallons of fresh water, one fifth of the world's fresh surface water, only the polar ice caps and Lake Baikal in Siberia contain more, (Great Lakes Information Network). They contain 21% of the world's supply of surface fresh water and 84% of North America's surface fresh water according to the US EPA. Yet company after company, with or without a president, empties dangerous contaminates indiscriminately into the Great Lakes. There are no forums by the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative on this. There are no officials from any ministry or department of environment bragging of enforcement or penalties levied, and no gun-toting dudes parading the corridors. Sadly only hard evidence to the contrary exists.

A Survey of Recreational Fishing in Canada 2005 released by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Economic Analysis and Statistics may shed a light on the motivation behind such a war on one alien. According to this survey, anglers spent a total of $215 million in direct recreational fishing expenditures on the Great Lakes in 2005. With transportation, food and lodging being the principle expenditure for all anglers amounting to over $74 million. Environment Canada reports in 2010 the Great Lakes sustained a $350 million recreational fishing industry with some 1.5 million recreational boaters, in addition to a $100 million commercial fishing industry. Is it feasible to assume there may be just one or two lobbyists in the ear of government?

Is it not feasible to turn this alien into a profit making business alternative exporting the meat to world markets? According to an Annual Report for 2009-2010 by the Kentucky State University – Division of Aquaculture, we in North America do not find the carp as a popular edible in contrast to many countries in the world. It appears that the main problem with potential consumers in North America is the fact that the carp has many intramuscular bones and we generally do not like to eat fish meat with small bones and prefer boneless fish fillet. Maybe that answers why fish sticks at the supermarket freezers are so popular.

Why has man's natural ability to adapt and think been pushed aside in favour of a war that costs hundreds of millions of dollars? The issues surrounding invasive alien species is extremely serious. These invasive species create havoc and threaten our very future. It is not a situation we can ignore. Yet here we have one of the aliens that turn out to be a profitable viable alternative. Is it time to re-think what we are doing? And maybe it will be the carp who will have to adapt and re-think its act of jumping out of the water into boats.


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