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Canadian officials reach out to public in war against Asian carp

A quiet battle has been raging in the Mississippi River basin for more than a decade as authorities in both the United States and Canada try to stop the Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes.

Now Canadian officials are making a concerted effort to reach the public with their message.

“We can safely say the most is being done to try to mitigate this problem from becoming any worse that it is,” said Bob Lambe, executive director of the Canada-Ontario Invasive Species Centre.

But the problem is already far worse than what many on both sides of the border would like to see.

“They’re going to reach these waters. They probably already reached these waters,” said Anthony Ricciardi, an invasive species biologist at Montreal’s McGill University. “The question is whether they are going to become established.”

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First introduced in the southern United States to eat excess algae in fish farms, the Asian carp escaped and have spread throughout the Mississippi River basin. The foreign, filter-feeding fish have voracious appetites wreaking havoc on the food supply of native species.

Along with ecological damage, one type of Asian carp, called silver carp, jump out of the water if agitated by boat motors, making a day of fishing, boating or waterskiing a dangerous endeavour.

The threat is beginning to establish itself in the public psyche as Canadians watch YouTube vides of flying fish, hear stories about ecological devastation and start to imagine what it could mean for Canada’s vast Great Lakes playground.

Watch Global News’ 16X9 on Friday night to see the impact of the Asian carp and what is being done to stop them from spreading into the Great Lakes.

Asian carp would feel very at home in the waters of the Great Lakes, according to a risk assessment released this summer by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The analysis forecasts just 10 female and 10 male fish could establish a population that could spread to all five lakes in 20 years.

“They will be able to find suitable spawning habitats, they will be able to find enough food for them to reproduce and grow large population. And in doing so they’re going to outcompete and push out our native fish,” said Becky Cudmore, who helped do the risk assessment.

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The Asian carp are now within striking distance of Lake Michigan with established populations just 30 kilometres downstream from the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal, which links the Mississippi River system to the Great Lakes.

“This issue is certainly growing in interest amongst the public,” Lambe said. “There is a lot being done on the Canadian side and the American side to try and deal with the threat, but it doesn’t seem like that is being communicated well to the public.”

To fill that gap, Lambe’s organization is holding the first-ever Canadian public forum on Asian carp in Toronto on Nov. 8. Leading scientists, policy makers and conservationist from both sides of the border will be on hand to answer questions about just what is being done to keep the carp out of Canadian waters.

Lambe said Canadian authorities are working with the Americans to study the fish, their rate of migration and what possible pathways into the Great Lakes may exist.

This spring the Conservatives announced a $17.5 million injection into efforts to protect the Great Lakes from the fish.

“These are difficult times economically but they have allocated specific funding for this problem,” Lambe said. “They seem to be directing it to the right courses of action.”

The money will be spent over five years to prevent the spread of the carp and to develop an early warning system to alert official to any signs the Asian carp are spreading further. A portion of the money will also focus on educating the public about the dangers of the carp.

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Funding is also meant to help enforcement agencies block over land transport of live Asian carp for sales in fish markets – which poses a risk of people releasing carp them into rivers, lakes or streams.

Many of Canada’s provinces have banned the live trade of Asian carp – rules enforced by federal border officials.

In Ontario, that’s led to tens of thousands of pounds of fish seizures. As recently as February, officials seized 14,000 lbs of live Asian carp at the Windsor border crossing. This summer a Toronto company was fined $50,000 for possessing live Asian carps in Ontario.

Ricciardi, who has found live Asian carp, in Montreal’s fish markets, said it’s time for the federal government to ban live trade countrywide.

“There is no federal regulation at all to deal with these species. They are free to come in except where provinces have… restrictions on them,” he said.

There are signs Ottawa will end that freedom soon.

The Conservatives are developing new rules to ban the live import, transport and possession of aquatic invasive species like Asian carp.

“It will probably be the most proactive pieces of legislation to deal with invasive species ever, certainly from the aquatic side,” Lambe said. “That’s going to fill a lot of gaps that existed before that we had to depend on provinces to do.”

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While fish may be the threat, humans are an essential part of the equation when it comes to stopping them – another message Lambe hopes the forum will help deliver.

“I hope the public will be more aware of what is being done and what they need to do to do their part to help combat invasive species,” he said.

Lambe said Canadians can help make sure live carp aren’t released into Canadian waterways by knowing what they look like, reporting live Asian carp in fish markets, and alerting authorities if they see one while fishing or boating.

If Asian carp do make it into Canadian waters, Ricciardi said there’s only one place to lay the blame.

“We know that there are risks. We know that more of them are arriving. We know that there is opportunity for them to invade in multiple locations, multiple vectors, multiple ways,” he said.

“We know that people will be the one that do it, so therefore, people are responsible.”

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