by David Lepeska
for The New York Times
There was a time, not long ago, when environmentalists could arouse fears of invasive Asian carp by highlighting videos of four-foot-long fish leaping out of downstate rivers or the discovery of carp DNA samples a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan.
But a recent event in Chicago suggested that sparking public panic about Asian carp these days requires more pizazz.
In a spacious antique furnishings store, Architectural Artifacts, on the North Side one evening last week, dozens of well-heeled guests mingled near the open bar hoping for a brush with genius: Jeanne Gang, the Chicago architect and new MacArthur fellow, was introducing her book about transforming Chicago’s waterways. Later, Second City took the stage to perform “Carpocalypse!” a hand-wringing ditty about Asian carp.
“There’s a real threat, and there are clear solutions,” said Henry Henderson, Midwest director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which organized the event, collaborated on Ms. Gang’s book and commissioned the song.
Two Asian carp species, silver and bighead carp, imported from China in the 1970s, escaped from their pens at fish farms in Arkansas and Kentucky. Disrupting ecosystems thanks to their voracious appetite for plankton and algae that other species need to survive, the carp swam up the Mississippi River, crowded the Illinois River and other regional waterways, and zeroed in on Chicago and the Great Lakes.
To combat these and other invasive species, which could threaten the Great Lakes ecosystem and its $7 billion fishing industries, the resources defense council has proposed physical barriers to separate Chicago waterways and Lake Michigan from the Mississippi. Ms. Gang’s book, “Reverse Effect: Renewing Chicago’s Waterways,” sees the barriers as an opportunity to remake the city’s riverfront.
The barrier proposal, Mr. Henderson said, “is just a step toward advancing the broader discourse.”
But times are tough in the carp-fighting business. State and federal officials say they are controlling Asian carp and keeping them out of the Great Lakes. Anecdotal evidence from a surging carp harvest in the Illinois River seems to indicate that fishing for and selling the carp as food or processing them into fish meal or fertilizer might significantly reduce their numbers, and thus their pressure on waterways in the Chicago area.
In any case, no major action can be taken before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases its comprehensive study into the blockage of aquatic pathways between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. The findings are due out in 2015.
Given all that, public fears seem at an ebb. Last month, an environmental group in Milwaukee organized what it hoped would be the first anti-Asian carp rally, in a downtown park. Only a handful of people turned out.
Enter the resources defense council and other groups aiming to keep the high-flying fish on the public radar. Next week, Ms. Gang and Mr. Henderson will be interviewed by the public-radio personality Steve Edwards at the Harold Washington Library in the Loop. Separately, a handful of Michigan tourism groups last week rolled out “Stop the Carp Now,” an online and radio ad campaign.
Several regional scientists, including Konrad Dabrowski, an aquaculturist at Ohio State University, argue that the Great Lakes are not conducive to Asian carp reproduction. Anti-carp agitation merely muddles the debate, Mr. Dabrowski said.
Events like the recent book party “serve no purpose other than to increase public fear,” he said. “I think we need a serious discussion on these issues.”
Days after scientists found Asian carp DNA in North Dakota and in the Mississippi River near Minneapolis last month, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin petitioned the Supreme Court to force the corps to speed its study.
The resources defense council event suggested a more honeyed approach. For their $250 cover, attendees snacked on chicken satay and carp-shaped chocolates, and chatted with Ms. Gang as she signed copies of her book.
The Second City performers sang from the perspective of Asian carp, proclaiming that the corps’ underwater electric barrier, just outside Chicago, “tickles every time we swim through it.”
“Leave us alone,” they urged the crowd. “Let us call the river and the Great Lakes home.”