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The Zombie Fish Is About to Invade Canada

The Asian carp breeds quickly, eats too much, and now they're coming to Canada.
April 29, 2014, 7:50pm
Asian carp jumping from the water. Image: Asian Carp Regional Committee

It’s well known the American-Canadian border is one of the largest mostly unprotected international boundaries in the world, but when it comes to the Asian carp, the two countries' shared waterways are being armed to the teeth.

The devastating invasive species, which first came to North America in the 1960s and 70s, has marauded the Mississippi River system, replacing local fish species and storming further north. In desperate response, the US Army Corps of Engineers created underwater electric barriers near Chicago to electrocute any fish passing through, and started using water guns and hormonal fish love potions to prevent the fish from entering the Great Lakes water system.

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To be clear, the term "Asian carp" actually refers to a number of invasive species, including bighead, silver, grass, and black carp, all of which are voracious eaters that breed prolifically. Originally the fish were imported to consume algae in Arkansas fishponds and sewage plants, then spread rapidly after escaping into the Mississippi River during flooding in the early 1990s.

Canadians are particularly worried because the fish are headed their way. The Great Lakes commercial and sport fishing industry is worth $7 billion annually, and Asian carp, prolific filter feeders who gorge on plankton, wipe out food supplies for several key fish. That means exports like walleye and lake trout will be competing against the carp invader; higher-level predators like the muskellunge or garpike will also be affected as their food sources disappear.

Now the Asian carp is within 50 miles of Lake Michigan, and policymakers are shaking. In Canada, the Fisheries and Oceans ministry introduced $17 million in funding to combat the invasive species. As it stands, the plan is to heavily monitor the growth of potential Asian carp populations in Canada, with spending on prevention, awareness, and cooperation with American initiatives. And they should act fast, because scientists have reportedly found evidence of the fish already in a Great Lakes watershed.

Last week Minister Gail Shea visited with a Southern Ontario lake community, ground zero for any Asian carp invasion. “Our government has taken important steps to prevent and mitigate the risk of Asian carp entry into Canadian waters,” she said. "Thus far, our efforts have helped prevent the species from becoming established in the Great Lakes basin and we must continue to remain vigilant in these efforts.”

The Canadians are not only afraid of the Asian carp’s potential influence on the marketplace, but its potential as a safety hazard on waterways: Startled by electric and noise waves, the Asian carp is known to spring out of the water, knocking people out and breaking noses. (Of course, catching jumping carp has become its own sport, as anglers catch them from passing boats or use bow and arrows to snipe them out of the air.)

Lately the Canadian feds have focused on cracking down on illegal importation of the fish. One guy was fined $75,000 for importing live Asian carp on ice. Even those fish are a risk: Asian carp are also known by the nickname “zombie fish,” as they can still be alive, even when they appear dead, after being out of the water for significant amounts of time.

In the future, if the problem worsens, expect more electrical or physical barriers to be built to stem the migration into Canadian waters. Some say Canadians and Americans should start embracing the plankton-eating fish and cull them as a new food source instead of spending billions to prolong the inevitable.