Detecting Asian Carp in the Great Lakes

Lindsay Chadderton is director of the Conservancy’s Great Lakes Aquatic Invasive Species program.

Most of the stories we tell at The Nature Conservancy have a happy ending — a precious piece of land is saved from future development or rare species are brought back from the brink of extinction. While the project I’ve been working on — a tool to find out if invasive carp are close to invading Lake Michigan — certainly is a success from a scientific point of view, the results have qualified our celebration. Our research indicates that one of the most infamous of these species, Asian carp, have entered the lake. If the carp thrive, they may pose a threat to the other Great Lakes.

I’ve been working with my colleagues at the University of Notre Dame to develop a sensitive, early detection screening tool to search for signs of silver and bighead carp in the canals south of Chicago. Scientists have documented at least 180 non-native aquatic species that have established populations in the Great Lakes, and of those, about 20 species have become invasive, causing significant ecological and economic harm. Our goal is to monitor their movement and prevent these invasive species from becoming established  in Lake Michigan. We know from working on other aquatic invasives that the earlier we can detect a new invasion, the better chance we have of controlling an emerging population.

Asian carp have been known to disrupt the ecological balance of similar freshwater systems, such as the Mississippi River, harming humans and the biological integrity of the river as well. The DNA we found suggests a number of Asian carp are present in the Chicago canals that connect to Lake Michigan, but we really can’t tell the extent of their population at this point. Our sampling is similar to driving on a dirt road when all you can see is a dust cloud — you know at least one vehicle came in front of you to create the cloud, but you can’t tell how many were there. We are, in effect, sampling a dust cloud or plume produced by the fish.

Regardless of how many Asian carp we may be dealing with, taken together all our results speak for themselves — Asian carp have made it to Lake Michigan, leaving behind a trail of evidence. How we deal with this is another issue, but for me and the team at Notre Dame, the debate now needs to shift how we respond to this discovery, and not the merits of the method.

Sadly, this also means the battle to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes is really just beginning. This isn’t likely to give us a traditional happy ending, but a satisfactory celebration of some sorts would be a welcome outcome.

(Image: Asian carp at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. Credit: kate.gardiner/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. Do you have any suggestions on what can be done to stop their spread?

  2. Great, first Quagga musles now carp?

  3. The best thing we can do to stop their spread is to prevent them from establishing a viable population. We probably have a relatively short window on which to act now to prevent invasion of the Great Lakes. We can also learn a great number of lessons from the sea lamprey control program in the Great Lakes basin that we can apply to Asian carp. Control and management could involve a number of things ranging from continued rotenone treatment to better physical barriers to biocontrol methods. We’re looking at a number of options and are working with partners to help implement the best long-term solutions, however, as always The Nature Conservancy emphasizes that any solution must be based in sound science.

  4. Ugh – alien species are notoriously difficult to get rid of. There have been cases of introducing other predators but that often gets out of hand.

    How does Asian carp taste? Maybe they need to be overfished!

  5. But if you dont mind,they are also living specie like us, why stop their spread? yuo can also visit my website for my side:) thanks.

  6. The only tactic that might work is to fish them with commercial gear and render them to fish meal and omega three oil. Both are commercially viable products. What the markets can’t use governments should support the use of.

  7. Really interesting post.
    So how did the carp get there in the frist place?

    Aanee xxx

  8. The carp were used by catfish farms in the South, to keep the ponds clean of algae. They got away during major floods (1993, 94?) and started up the Mississippi River, took a right at Grafton Ill, up the Illinois River and have now populated the main tributaries thereof.
    The state of Ill has signed agreements with a Chinese company to, basically, buy as much fish as can be caught by commercial fishing in the Illinois River. So, overfishing may well be one control method in the rivers, but you’d still want to stop them from entering the Great Lakes.

  9. We, Fish Innovation Enterprises, is located in Louisiana. We provide Asian Bighead & Silver Carp as a sustainable harvest for consumable and non-consumable goods. Our Co. main objectives are:

    1) To create secure, satisfying jobs for Gulf Coast workers displaced by the Deep Water Horizon oil spill in familiar occupations

    2) To produce quality consumable and non-consumable products from a high quality fish which will sell successfully in targeted markets

    3) To positively impact the environment of the Mississippi River and its estuaries by helping to control the Asian carp population using a NO-WASTE manufacturing process

    We have successful to the most part. Research has been conducted and is till on-going at LSU, WVU, and other universities. Nutritional Analysis’ have been done on the Bighead & Silver carps and a remarkable find indeeed.

    This fish is a filter-feeder, low on the food chain, eating only zooplankton and micro-biological organisms. There are no metals in this fish (no mercury), no pollutants, very high in protein and Omega-3 fatty acids. mild taste and moderate texture. We provide a patent=pending de-boning technique which allows us to yield 85% beautiful white fillets from this invasive species.

    We have been providing a sustainable harvest off0shore and in wholesale and retail stores. This fish is better than salmon, cod, and tilapia and competative comparisons are available.

    If you would like to learn more, visit us at

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