[ToC]

 

THE CARP EXPERIENCE

Clinton Crockett Peters

 

On a cloudy day in December, the Chicago Shipping Channel Dam straddles what looks like any other polluted stream of gray water. At nine million dollars in construction, and five hundred thousand dollars every year in operations, the dam isn't visible. It lurks, like what it's meant to keep out, below the surface. A barge should and does pass through every hour.
     The dam is an electric current that runs between them and the channel, charging 1,500 feet of water between mile markers 296.1 and 296.7. Two volts pass throughout the water, which is enough to kill a child or an elderly person or someone with a bad heart and impair the unborn infant of a pregnant mother. It is enough to send sparks flying from the hulls of barges. Everyone, from fishers to dock workers, is advised not to touch any surface in contact with the water.
     Its enemy, the Asian carp, have no stomachs. They can weigh up to one hundred pounds and eat forty percent of their body weight each day. They are vacuums, Hoovering up whatever they can from the cold water, usually phytoplankton and zooplankton, microscopic bottom feeders that form the base of a river's food pyramid. Carp effectively cut out the middle men and everything else at the top because nothing in turn, besides not-so-picky human anglers, can eat the carp.
     Carp also eat the eggs of other fish, infanticide being an impressively good takeover strategy. They in turn lay five million eggs a season.
     The carp are threatening to cross into the Great Lakes and decimate $7 billion worth of American fisheries. The fish at the gates of the Great Lakes are really five subspecies lumped together called "Asian" for shorthand. The silver carp is perhaps the most famous. It is known as the "jumping fish" or "flying fish" and is easily seen on YouTube in its most famous habit of scaring at motor boats and leaping, en-masse, up to ten feet in the air.
     The fish slap boaters in the face. They can break noses and jaws. They have knocked people unconscious. Wildlife personnel wear face masks when attempting to catch them.
     In 2009 the Attorney General of Michigan filed a lawsuit against the State of Illinois to close the canal. In January of 2010, the Supreme Court heard the case but denied the request. In July of the same year, Michigan filed again, this time with Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in a joint lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers to shut the canal and stop the fish.
     There was no other reason for the action, for states to file against state, the judicial system inundated with suits, except the prevention of the bottom-feeding creature from spoiling the Great Lakes' catch.
     I want to pay attention to the carp, this chubby, suctioning plague fish that caused states to sue, fishers to panic, the Army Corps of engineers to build its dam and later dump gallons of poison, because I'm about to suggest that, maybe, we haven't been as generous as we should about species in a place where they haven't been before.

But I want to think about Molly first, the hypophthalmichthys molitrix. Molly is an average silver carp. She weighs 30 pounds and is the color of a U.S. quarter. She swims in schools of about a hundred carp, each who can release pheromones to attract fellow silvers to the same water. Molly prefers low velocity, high volume streams, taller than a person can stand in.
     When Molly was born, she was a pinhead-sized embryo in an egg that was waterlogged. Her mother laid her and a partial clutch during the warm, flood season. Carp must lay eggs in rivers swift and long enough to carry their kin from larva to youth. They are born in transit. Molly floated in mid-current for about a hundred hours before hatching.
     Her defining moments are birth, death, motherhood, and the swimming into new territory. Like most creatures when an area is overcrowded, Molly will relocate, a slow glide into waters more habitable, where there are more nutrients, rivers less teaming with sizable, leaping cousins.
     Molly's ancestors came up the Mississippi from the South. One theory is that the Asian carp were originally brought to Arkansas in the 1970s from China to clean sewage plant tanks, hog swill lagoons, and other detritus-filled lakes. But one summer, heavy rains raised the Arkansas ponds until water and carp spilled into neighboring streams, which led them to the Chicago River.
     Recent evidence partially undermines this theory. Accounts of free carp are reported from Louisiana before those of Arkansas. In Louisiana, they could have been humanely released, dumped when assumed dead, or deliberately introduced for sporting as so many other fish are in the United States.
     Either way, Molly now lives in America's largest river, while her brethren occupy the waters of twelve states and Puerto Rico (in Puerto Rico, they were released into golf courses). To breed, find life, and make a family, Molly must move. And thus carp are nuzzling the Chicago Shipping Canal's electric door, so many miles from the ponds where they were supposed to clean or get caught on a hook.

The writer Joe Abramajtys equates the Asian carp's plight to the "schizophrenic" American immigrant experience, "they are brought in to do the shit work other, older, established groups shun - forced to live in camps and ghettos...discriminated and legislated against...until some of them escape their plight to live free in better circumstances."
     If Molly were to get shocked in the Chicago Canal, the two volts twisting through her body, there is a chance it wouldn't kill her. Stunned, Molly could regain consciousness on the other side of the dam. There is a chance, perhaps, a carp like she already has.

It is human ingenuity and, fittingly, immigrant exploitation that has allowed the carp this far upstream. Built in 1900, the canal reversed the direction of what would become the only river in the world to flow away from its mouth. The American Public Works Association (APWA) labeled it one of the top ten civic projects of the century. The American Society of Civil Engineers has said it is one of the "Seven Wonders of the Modern World." And it is listed as a registered historic landmark.
     The canal's primary function is to divert human sewage.
     Up until the twentieth century, Chicagoans dumped their waste into Lake Michigan, from which they also piped drinking water. In 1885, flooding backed up over the potable intakes. Ninety-thousand people died from typhoid, dysentery, and cholera: 450 times more people than who died in the Great Chicago Fire.
     The canal was the country's largest municipal earth-moving project and the largest human-made canal ever completed at the time. According to the APWA, the construction was a key event for the building of the Panama Canal because the Chicago Canal trained its engineers.
     The Chicago Canal was begun in 1892 and finished eight backbreaking years later. It required 41 million cubic yards of rock and soil displacement. The 85,000 workers were immigrants from Ireland, Poland, and other Eastern European countries, as well as many African Americans. They were made to do the hardest and shitiest work. They dug by actual hand as in the early twentieth century power tools and steam shovels were in their infancy. These newcomers, freshly welcomed to American northern urban life from many parts of the globe, removed enough earth and glacier debris that would equal a square mile of buildings each five stories tall.
     The Chicago Shipping and Sanitary Canal became not just an architectural and engineering marvel, but a concentrated piece of public reconciliation, progress that was Chicago's upward trajectory following a municipal self-poisoning and the, perhaps mythic, lamp-kicking, barn-burning cow. And it was done on the backs of immigrants.
     Their work reversed many millennia of gravity. Today the Chicago River flows away from Lake Michigan. The canal sends water and waste into the Mississippi, which continues down to the bayou where it dumps pesticides from Iowa, mercury from the factories in Ohio, and Chicago citizens' morning flushes.
     Then as now, a neighboring state sued to close the Chicago Canal. The Attorney General of Missouri claimed that adding metropolitan manure in the Mississippi might send the waste into St. Louis's drinking glasses. And again as now there was a concern from the other Great Lakes states, then that the six hundred thousand cubic feet of water flowing out of Lake Michigan every minute would empty the lake like a balloon deflating from a tiny puncture. But Missouri failed in its lawsuit, as the five states later would, and the passage to the lakes, dug by immigrants, was left open.

But carp weren't the first arrivals. Tanker ships have brought a formidable array of international visitors: 183 documented exotics including: zebra mussels, quagga mussels, flat worms, humpback pea clams, European flounder, spiny water fleas, round gobies, an Ebola-like fish-killing virus and the famous sea lamprey.
     Lamprey is an eel-like creature with a circular row of sharp teeth and a piercing tongue that clamps onto the bodies of fish and sucks out their blood and bodily fluids.
     Zebra mussels have spread to every tributary of the Mississippi south of Minnesota, and there are now over one trillion quagga mussels in the Great Lakes. And, of course, there are the Pacific salmon. These fish that the Attorney General of Michigan is so worried about need to be stocked each year. The salmon are stunned by electricity in their home rivers out west and snatched as eggs from their mothers. They are not native, as neither are the rainbow trout nor brown trout, the latter a fish that is now artificially stocked in over 500 rivers in the United States.
     And you probably shouldn't eat the Great Lakes salmon anyway, because of all the petrochemicals, pesticides, and heavy metals pouring in from the Midwest and Rust Belt, especially if you're young or elderly or pregnant. That is, the same people who really shouldn't swim in the Chicago Shipping Canal.
     Zebra mussels, though, while devastating to some natives, have also improved water quality. Each mussel can filter a liter of water per day. Filtering contaminants in turn has increased the populations of invertebrates (the ironic backbone of aqua systems) and yellow perch, and the mussels also helped recover native walleyes, lake trout, and emerald shiners.
     The Asian carp also can be remarkably healthy. They are low in mercury because they don't eat other fish and high in cancer-fighting Omega 3 fatty acids. The carp are boney, which leads Americans to view them with suspicion, but the Chinese eat them all the time. An irony is that in China carp are sometimes overfished.
     And this is the point where I begin to question the total validity of warnings against invasives. The red flags seem part of a neo-nationalist impulse, the flagrant isolationism that kept immigrants in social dry dock as they built our cities. I'm not suggesting we open all our wildernesses to invaders, but I want to consider how immigrant species might become stitched into the fabric of our national ecosystem. It seems pretty obvious we're not going to get rid of them.
     Louisiana chef Philippe Parola, a French immigrant, was trolling the Atchafalya River for a unique fish to cook on the legendary Jeff Corwin's Extreme Cuisine show. Parola had thought he could find alligator gar to impress Corwin, but changed his mind when two giant carp jumped over his boat gunnels and landed right at his feet. Since then he has written a book on the subject, hosted cooking demonstrations, held community cooking classes, and posts recipes on the internet that use Asian carp. He has licensed the moniker "silverfin" for the carp in hopes that a new name, a strategy of many immigrants, will help its reception.
     Parola calls the meat "as white as snow" and has said that "there is no better fish," and he would "take it over tilapia." He has pioneered invasive species culinary arts. "Can't beat 'em, Eat 'em!" he says. Silverfin Provencale needs, along with four silverfin steaks, four tablespoons of olive oil, four ounces of white wine, lemon juice, fresh garlic, onion, one diced tomato, parsley and seasoning to taste and should be baked and served over pasta or mashed potatoes.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn said publicly that he was a fan of the Asian carp. And Feeding Illinois, and anti-hunger advocacy group is excited about using the carp to feed the 1.8 million people who relied on Illinois's Supplemental Nutrition Program. They have held cooking demonstrations with Chef Parola at local high schools.
     Perhaps in time Americans will begin to see the carp as desirable. Perhaps silverfin will become a celebrated comfort food like fried chicken. Perhaps anglers will cast their hooks hoping not for a trout, but an edible, healthy alternative. Then wildlife personnel won't have to ship in eggs every season and stun mother fish. Maybe we will embrace the foreign nature of the carp as quintessentially American like many other things (chickens for instance, originally came from China too).
     Despite the barrier's construction in 2006, evidence of the carp has been found numerous times above the electric current in scientific DNA sampling. One theory put forward by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is that people who reside in Chicago's Chinatown along the Chicago River are releasing the fish into the water. Immigrant Chinese, the DNR claims, will buy carp and set them free as a karmic gesture for the sin of eating flesh. But it was a Caucasian American, a trucker, who was caught in 2012 by undercover DNR agents in Michigan for driving around and selling live carp out of his flatbed coolers.
     Should the carp swim en masse above the barrier, past the electricity and lawsuits, there is little authorities could do to reverse the flow. But the dangers of the carp are possibly overstated. They may not like the North cold, and they may not be adapted to the larger lakes' surface. They require the smooth, narrow, moving channels of living water. Or they could evolve to live like other stocked fish, stolen from their homelands and thrust into harsh habitats across the country. Or they may stay put in their current numbers until the guide books change and they become Asian-American, the first hyphenated fish.

During a routine maintenance closure, the Department of Natural Resources, the Army Corps of Engineers, and around 300 other organizations teamed up to dump 2,200 gallons of rotenone poison into the Chicago Shipping Canal, targeting the Asian carp. Rotenone, according to its Material Safety Data Sheet, is "toxic" and a carcinogen that could harm an unborn child, targets the liver, kidneys, nerves and female reproductive system, should be handled with a "self-contained breathing apparatus." Its "chemical, physical, and toxicological properties have not been thoroughly investigated."
     Officials poured the poison from jugs into a six-mile stretch of the Chicago Shipping Canal. Two hundred thousand pounds of native fish rose to the water's surface: red, white, and blue and asphyxiated. A single silverfin floated with them.

 

 

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"The Carp Experience" began when, as an MFA student, I answered an advisor what my thesis project was ("assisted migrations:" the moving of plants and animals across time zones, ecotones, ideas). The advisor, a jolly, round, dependable woman of iron, exclaimed, "Oh, have you seen the flying carp? Youtube them!" I then ducked out of her office cave to click on her wisdom. Like the fish, I was hooked.