Time for action to halt spread of Asian carp

Movies that showed humans tinkering with nature and, in the process, triggering some cataclysmic environmental disaster, were a source of curiosity and amusement in the 1950s and 1960s.

Remember “Them,” the 1954 film starring James Whitmore and Fess Parker about atomic tests that caused ants to mutate into giant havoc-wreakers? Those fantastic stories sure seemed laughable then.

But no one’s laughing now; those improbable science fiction stories actually seem to be coming true. Consider, for example, the Asian carp.

The first were brought to America from Asia years ago to help Arkansas fish farmers rid their ponds of nuisance algae, but they escaped and made it into the Mississippi River watershed. Multiple species, including the silver and the bighead carp, now represent 90 to 95 percent of what fishermen catch in parts of the watershed, virtually destroying some commercial fisheries.

The carp are prodigious and voracious; they can spawn three times a year, and some grow as large as 100 pounds. By gobbling up certain tiny plant and animal life, they alter the foundations of the food chain where they live and crowd out other fish species.

Now they are within a few miles of Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes, where a multibillion-dollar sport fishery is in real jeopardy.

No one is certain precisely what would happen should they make it into the big lake and begin eating and spawning their way through the lakes that surround our state. But there is a real possibility they could all but destroy our trout and salmon fisheries and permanently alter the lakes’ ecosystems.

The people of Michigan are well acquainted with invasive species. The zebra mussel rode to our lakes in the ballast holds of seagoing ships, and the effect has been to destroy many trout and whitefish spawning grounds, especially in Lake Huron. The emerald ash borer, which is native to parts of Russia, China and Japan, is on a march across our region that may ultimately claim every ash tree in our forests.

The difference in the case of the Asian carp is that we may still have a small chance of keeping the invader out of the Great Lakes. But we have to take strong, immediate action.

Previous measures to keep the carp from the lake seem to have failed. A channel that connects the Mississippi system to Lake Michigan — a channel created by man, not nature — has an electric barrier designed to keep the fish back, but scientists have detected evidence of the fish beyond the barrier, which means additional steps are needed. These steps are being taken now.

Among the plans is one this past week to dump a substance into the water to kill the carp in a five- to six-mile stretch of the canal near the electric barrier while the barrier is shut down for maintenance. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources, including resources from Plainwell, is assisting Illinois in that effort. At this point, there seems to be little choice.

We don’t like that destructive species continually are being introduced into our ecosystems.

We don’t like dumping fish-killing substances into our waters.

And we don’t like the fact that our greatest natural resource is facing such a grave threat.

Ultimately, if it’s not too late, we may need to close the manmade Illinois river channels that connect the Mississippi and Lake Michigan to protect the lake’s waters from the Asian carp. Ironically, that step would take us back to the way nature had intended it in the first place.