Canadians be warned: Covering the midwest carp crisis

Andrew Reeves snaps a picture. Photo courtesy of Kurt Stepnitz.

By Mikayla Heiss
BU News Service

CANADA – Jam a pick into the fish’s eye socket to get a firm grip, the fishermen told Andrew Reeves, instructing him on how to handle the day’s catch. The Canadian journalist watched as they tossed squirming Asian carp into the holding pen, a site of fish scales and slime.

Reeves had never fished. Even the idea of catch and release seemed cruel to him. Yet, he took the pick, joining the workers on the Barrier Defense Asian Carp Removal Project contracted to tackle the problem hidden in the Midwest’s waters.

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m not going to do that,’ but from a journalistic perspective, I had to ask these questions,” Reeves said. “If I sit on the edge of the boat and act like I’m too good for this or I don’t want to get dirty, they’re probably not going to respect me, and they’re probably not going to want to talk to me.”

Reeves traveled across 10 states, interviewing and shadowing countless experts, to get the truth behind the Asian carp invasion. Sifting through his findings, he published a 384-page book, “Overrun: Dispatches from the Asian Carp Crisis,” in March 2019.

In the 1970s, Asian carp, a group of fish species, were brought to North America to consume algae, reducing algal blooms, and act as a potential food source. Now, Asian carp devour food and absorb living spaces, outcompeting native species, according to the USGS. 

These invaders can grow up to 5 feet and be anywhere from 30 to 140 pounds, according to Reeves’s book. Silver carp, a particular species of Asian carp, are prone to leaping out of the water in response to sudden sounds and pose a threat to boaters. 

During the reporting process, Reeves had his own close call with the leaping fish. Sitting on the edge of a boat on the Illinois River, he was stretching his legs when the motor gunned. Everyone hunkered down, making themselves smaller targets, Reeves said.

He had already seen videos of silver carp in action, and in a rush, he crouched down. “This is going to be it,” Reeves recalled. The fish jumped into the boat, but Reeves avoided a direct blow, suffering only a minor graze.

The carp’s acrobatic abilities were not what first captured Reeves’ attention, however.

In 2009, Asian carp DNA was found past an electric barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Over the next five years, reports flooded in about the invasive species. When Reeves stumbled across a piece by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, he decided to write a feature about the fish.

However, it was not until 2014 that Reeves truly dove into the Asian carp crisis.

As snow fell, a large crowd of about 100 people gathered for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers meeting at Cleveland Public Library. The Corps was set to discuss potential solutions to stop Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes, and Reeves, in the midst of writing the book, attended the gathering. When Reeves arrived, he was stunned by the high attendance.

“If 100 people are willing to brave a snowstorm to listen to this kind of presentation at the library after work, people must really care about this,” Reeves said.  

With a price tag of $18.3 billion, the preferred plan was to separate the Chicago Waterway System from Lake Michigan. After the Corps’ meeting, Reeves began to fully immerse himself in the Asian carp crisis, he said.

“There was this strange sense of obligation I had when we were talking about spending $18 billion on hydrological separation of the Great Lakes from the Mississippi,” Reeves said.

During his research, Reeves found the Asian carp crisis was simplified by most mainstream media, causing a piece of understanding to be lost. Articles tended to focus on accidental releases, avoiding critical reasoning for the carp’s use. 

“There were people who genuinely believed that this was a healthy, environmentally sensitive biological alternative to chemicals,” Reeves said.

Students often cite one specific reason for the Asian carp’s appearance, said Peter Sorensen, a University of Minnesota professor. Sorensen suggests they read Reeves’ book, which presents a variety of perspectives.

Becky Cudmore, a senior science advisor on aquatic invasive species for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, praised Reeves’ ability to combine political, social and economic aspects of the Asian carp invasion.

“Books like Andrew’s can take all those pieces and make a package to hand over to the public for a more fulsome view on the topic,” Cudmore said.

Andrew Reeves spent years investigating the Asian carp crisis. Photo courtesy of Courtney Walker.

Reeves has travelled throughout Canada and the U.S., connecting with readers from both countries. The crowds Reeves attracts often stand out from the norm.

USGS staff members packed a reading in Columbia, Missouri, Reeves said. Sporting steel-toed boots and clothes typically worn in a lab, the staff appeared to come to the event straight from work, according to Reeves.

“I talked to the bookstore owners afterwards, and they said that was easily the most diverse and strange crowd,” Reeves said.

As a Canadian journalist, Reeves approached the Asian carp crisis from a unique standpoint, Cudmore said.

While bighead and grass carp have been captured on rare occasions, Asian carp are not established in Canadian waters. The Canadian government is taking a proactive approach  to keep Asian carp out of their waterways, Cudmore said.

But without visual proof of the carp’s presence, it is difficult to convey the threat Asian carp pose, Cudmore said.

“To them, it’s kind of an invisible problem,” Cudmore said. “Writing books and getting the information out in a palatable, enjoyable format, such as Andrew’s book, can really bring what’s an invisible problem into more focus.”

According to Cudmore, American interactions in the carp crisis will affect Canadians, but much of the literature has excluded Canadian perspectives.

“What is done or not done will directly impact us in Canada,” Cudmore said. “And I think it’s really important that we have Canadian eyes, Canadian ears and Canadian faces at the table in order to ensure that it’s understood where we’re coming from.”

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