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Navigating a Sea of Superlatives in Pursuit of the Asian Carp

Navigating a Sea of Superlatives in Pursuit of the Asian Carp

In the contentious discussions over what to do about Asian carp, facts and science are often distorted or even completely ignored

Rebekah Anderson, a biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, had just dropped her phone in the water. There was no real chance of recovering it, but she and Ronnie Brown were peering down, wondering if it could be salvaged, when Brown saw a fish laying in their net close to the surface.

“Is that an Asian carp?” Anderson remembers him asking. Her mind raced in response. “Oh my gosh —that’s an Asian carp,” she recalls thinking. “Where are we? This is a really big deal.”

They hauled the fish aboard and put it on ice.

It was a variety of Asian carp known as Hypophthalmichthys molitrix, or the silver carp, and both Anderson and Brown, a commercial fisherman, knew that the species was not supposed to be there in the Little Calumet River, nine miles from Lake Michigan. An electric barrier system downstream was supposed to be impassable, arresting any carp swimming north. Dozens of miles below the barriers, the IDNR’s own monitoring showed that the Asian carp population was not advancing. A fisherman contracted by the IDNR had fished this spot the week before and caught nothing unexpected. But now the second Asian carp ever found above the barriers was in their boat. (The first had been caught a full seven years prior—also by Brown.)

Anderson was frantic, but there is a rigid protocol for finding Asian carp in these waters, and she followed it: Stay with the fish, take pictures, get coordinates, make phone calls. It was 9:44 am, Thursday, June 22, 2017.