Lake Invaders

Flying, fearsome Asian carp have already taken over much of the Mississippi. Can electrical barriers keep them out of the Great Lakes--or do we need to block the waterways to keep the fish from spreading?

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Ben Lowy for TIME

As fish go, silver carp — one of several species that fall under the general term Asian carp — have a lot going for them. They eat like crazy, they can grow to more than 40 lb. (18 kg), and their bony bodies mean few Americans want to eat them, so they can escape the overfished fate of their more filletable cousins. But they do have one slight evolutionary drawback: silver carp respond to the sound of a motorboat's engine by leaping out of the water. And that puts them at the mercy of hunters like Zach Nayden, who has come with his crew to the small town of Bath, Ill., to capture some carp. As we join the flotilla roaring down the Bath Chute, an 8-mile-long (13 km) channel next to the Illinois River, the carp start jumping, sometimes in high-arced pop flies, sometimes with the trajectory and velocity of a hard line drive. Nayden's boatmates lean out with nets and grab the shimmering fish as they somersault in the air.

Nayden is here for the annual Redneck Fishing Tournament (yes, that's the official name), where the boat that catches the most carp can take home hundreds of dollars. It's an intense competition, with a frisson of danger. A flying adult silver carp is like a sea-to-air missile. "One of these nails you, it's like getting hit with a brick," Nayden says as he steers the boat with one hand and wields a net with the other. As if on cue, one of his crew gets whacked by a carp. "Right in the face!" Nayden exults. "That was awesome!"

O.K., so the sixth annual Redneck Fishing Tournament may not be the most humane, safe or sane sporting event. But the two-day competition, held in early August, has its roots in a real problem. Asian carp have invaded the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, where they've crowded out more valuable native species and injured many an unsuspecting boater. Now they're poised to infiltrate the Great Lakes, where they could ravage the native ecosystem and disrupt a commercial and sports fishery worth billions of dollars.

The situation is so serious that the Supreme Court has weighed in. There was a carp summit at the White House earlier this year, and Washington may soon name a carp czar. Last month, several Great Lakes states filed a federal lawsuit to force the Army Corps of Engineers to step up its anticarp measures. "Asian carp will kill jobs and ruin our way of life," Michigan attorney general Mike Cox said after filing the latest lawsuit. "We cannot afford more bureaucratic delays — every action needs to be taken to protect the Great Lakes."

So how did these illegal immigrants get here? Like many invasive species, the Asian carp are an object lesson in unintended consequences. There are two main Asian carp species in the U.S.: the silver carp and the apparently smarter bighead carp, which can grow as large as 110 lb. (50 kg) but thankfully don't jump out of the water. They were imported in the 1970s from Asia — where they've been raised in aquaculture for thousands of years — for fish farms in the southern Midwest. At some point, most likely due to flooding, they escaped into the Mississippi River and have steadily moved upstream since.

The carp have thrived in their new environment. In parts of the Illinois River, which branches off the Mississippi, 9 of every 10 fish are now Asian carp. Voracious filter feeders, Asian carp can eat as much as 20% of their body weight in plankton per day, and females can lay a million eggs at a time. Though they're not predators, the fear is that if Asian carp establish themselves in the Great Lakes and their tributary rivers, the invasive species will wipe out the bottom of the aquatic food chain, wreaking havoc on an already stressed ecosystem. "From everything we've seen in other water bodies, [the carp] basically take over," says David Ullrich, executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. "There's tremendous fear of what they could do."

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