Asian carp: ‘We are in the beginning of an invasion’
Asian carp have arrived.
They’re big. They’re voracious. They’re destructive.
And government officials are doing what they can to stop the fish from gaining a foothold.
Four species of Asian carp have been regulated in Ontario: bighead, silver, grass and black carp.
Becky Cudmore, manager of the Asian Carp program for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), said 2015 was the first time grass carp was found in the Canadian waters of Lake Ontario.
They have not been found in Hamilton Harbour.
“We did have to increase the geographic scope of our efforts,” she said.
According to Cudmore, locating Asian carp is a “high priority” for the federal and Ontario governments.
Detection efforts are being focused in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
In 2012, Fisheries and Oceans launched the Asian carp program in order to protect our lakes and native species.
Cudmore said the invasion is at a stage in the process “we weren’t aware of”— meaning first they show up here and there. Then, the fish show up more frequently, which is the “arrival” stage.
Following that, they start to reproduce and establish the next generation and begin to spread.
There need to be about 10 fertile females and about the same amount of males to have greater than 50 per cent reproduction. The department of fisheries says seven grass carp were pulled from Lake Ontario in 2015, with one being fertile.
Three grass carp have been caught in Dunnville in recent years.
“We are in the beginning of an invasion,” said Cudmore. “We need to be more in that emergency mode and response and removal aspect.”
She added “there have been no signs of reproduction or establishment, so we know that we are ahead of the game and are being really proactive.”
The situation has become more serious which is why, under a grey sky and light rain, representatives from Fisheries and Oceans are on board electrofishing boats with nets ready to capture the invasive fish if it’s spotted.
They’re conducting an on-water emergency training exercise off Byng Island Conservation Area in Dunnville, demonstrating their techniques for an emergency response.
“This is the first time that we’re aware of that emergency preparedness is being done on water for an invasive species in Canada,” said Cudmore. “We’re walking through different scenarios to identify any gaps or weaknesses now so that we can strengthen them before the summer starts.”
Operating under the “incident command system” designed by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), emergency management expert John Saunders said all agencies working together is critical to prevent a rapid invasion from happening.
“This is an opportunity to test the response plan, tweak it and ensure that we haven’t missed any gaps,” said Saunders. “Also, to identify what are the best practices that DFO has been doing and make sure we document those and do those in the future.”
The Grand River was selected as the test sight because, as Cudmore pointed out, it has suitable habitat conditions for the species to spawn and grow its population.
“They like the long rivers with woody debris along the side, and that’s where they like to hide,” she said while on board the observation boat. “It’s highly suitable and we have caught fish here, so it says to us it’s a river we really need to keep an eye on.”
Due to their destructive nature, if Asian carp were to establish a population in Ontario waterways, they could potentially eat the food supply required by native fish, pushing them out of their habitat. Native fish species would decline, causing potentially devastating long lasting effects for commercial and recreational fishing industries in the province that contribute millions of dollars annually to Canada’s economy.
Cudmore’s team has in the past implemented emergency measures.
By using science and understanding the biology of the species and its habits, they’re able to target the most vulnerable areas.
“We have built up from 24 to 36 early detection sites,” said Cudmore. “We visit at least once a year, and some that are very suitable we would visit several times a year.”
All it takes is one capture for the federal agency to implement its emergency response plan. The level of severity is determined by an onsite aquatic biologist who determines if the Asian carp is fertile or sterile. The test takes about two hours. Over the past few years, Cudmore said, the number of Asian carp they’ve captured has risen.
“Our surveillance efforts have increased and we have more people out,” she said. “More boats out, more eyes out on the water with the public helping, so it’s hard to say whether there is more out there or we’re just better at catching them now.”
“I am worried,” she added. “I’m also really confident that we are prepared and we’re ready to go. I have all the faith in the world in my team and in our partners.”
A Fisheries and Oceans team conducts a training search off Byng Island Conservation Area in Dunnville.
Alex Price handles a common carp during the training exercise.
Biologist Julia Colm syringes a common carp’s eyeball.