by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter
Democratic U.S. Senator Al Franken boarded the “Magnolia Blossom” late last week in St. Paul and the cruise ship left her marina slip on the Mississippi River to head upstream to Lock and Dam No. 1 at the Ford Plant in St. Paul.
The creamy-surfaced river, swollen by recent rains, was fast flowing with trees at low points along the banks wearing dark collars of water.
It is exactly under these high-flow conditions that Asian carp like to move, say experts.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner (DNR) Tom Landwehr, U.S. Army Corps and National Park Service officials and others joined Franken on the tour of the river, comparing and discussing strategies with him on halting the spread of Asian carp.
“I’m pretty confident we can stop it (Asian carp) from coming to the Upper Mississippi,” said Franken, who along with Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar and others has sponsored legislation that could have the Army Corps, under certain conditions, closing the Upper St. Anthony Falls locks in Minneapolis as a means of walling off the upper river to Asian carp.
“We’re certainly paying enough attention to it,” said Franken of the issue of Asian carp.
“This is too important for us not solve,” he said.
Testing of water samples for Asian carp eDNA has seen positive hits for the presence of the carp along the river the “Magnolia Blossom” plies and all the way upstream to the Coon Rapids Dam and beyond.
Positive hits have been scored in the St. Croix River.
Indeed, not long ago, three separate species of Asian carp broke the surface at the same time in the net of a commercial fisherman south of Winona.
“But we have not caught numbers abundant enough to indicate that they’re breeding yet,” said Landwehr.
Water sample testing continues, explained the DNR’s Tim Schlagenhaft, one of the agency’s point men on Asian carp.
Schlagenhaft expects new test results to come back from the lab within a short period of time.
But the focus of the testing now, he explained, is less on trying to determine the frontiers of the carp than on measuring the reliability of testing procedures.
What’s really important is catching live fish, Schlagenhaft said.
“Because eDNA doesn’t tell there’s a live fish; it tells you where to look,” he said.
Landwehr, too, argued that eDNA test results should be viewed with caution.
“It could be an eagle picked up a (Asian) carp down by Winona, ate it, and flew up here and spit out some tail,” he said of positive hits on the upper river.
Lawmakers last session slated funding towards combating aquatic invasive species and also towards establishing an exotic species research center at the University of Minnesota.
Currently, there are proposals to establish electronic carp barriers at Lock and Dam No. 1 and at “leaky” Lock and Dam No. 2 at Hastings — Landwehr styled the latter site a “leaky dam” because of the risk of Asian carp surmounting it during high water.
DNR officials are skeptical of successfully preventing Asian carp from entering the Minnesota River, which joins the Mississippi above Lock and Dam No. 2.
To go ahead with one or both of the electronic barrier proposals, the Army Corps must first approve it.
Because only state funding would be involved, this could speed up the process, Landwehr indicated.
But it could still take two years to gain approval, assuming it comes.
“Which we’re still comfortable with,” Landwehr said.
So far, the cooperation the DNR has received from federal officials has been good, Landwehr indicated.
Although there are other kinds of fish barriers available — bubble curtains, noise, light — DNR officials favor electronic.
“It will slow down and stop some of the fish,” said Schlagenhaft of nonelectric fish barriers. “But we don’t think it will stop all of the fish.”
Onboard the “Magnolia Blossom,” federal officials suggested electronic fish barriers could prove hazardous, even lethal, to humans.
Landwehr indicated there were several things the federal government could do to assist the state in its Asian carp control efforts.
Besides allowing for the closure of the St. Anthony locks if needed, the feds could also divert a slice of the funding now being directed towards exotic species control in the Great Lakes.
“Ten million dollars would be enormously helpful,” Landwehr said.
In addition to their efforts on the Mississippi River, the DNR is also currently looking at placing fish barriers at key points in southwestern Minnesota to close off the back door of the state to Asian carp.
There is still a lot to learn about these fish, Landwehr explained.
It could be, Asian carp would respond differently to environmental conditions in Minnesota than those found elsewhere.
Possibly, the carp would not prove as big of a problem.
“So should we roll the dice and take our best bet on it?” asked Landwehr.
“I don’t think that’s a prudent thing to do,” he said.
But controlling Asian carp currently comes down to probabilities rather than absolutes, the commissioner suggested.
“In reality, all it takes is for some Yo-Yo to take a couple (of Asian carp) in a bucket from here and dump them upriver,” Landwehr said.
But Landwehr, and Franken, hope a “silver bullet” can be found by researchers to permanently halt Asian carp.