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Asian Carp in the Great Lakes: The Unintended Consequences of Short-Term Thinking

April 1, 2012

Asian carp have been making their way from Arkansas, where they were introduced in the 1990s, upstream through the Mississippi River system, and have now arrived in Chicago.  (The Chicago River is a tributary of the ‘Mighty Miss.’)  The Chicago River rises only a mile from Lake Michigan’s watershed, the closest point of contact between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River system.  The carp may already have entered Lake Michigan, where they are expected to be a very dominant invasive species, doing great harm to the ecosystem over time.

No one stopped to think, when these ‘bighead carp’ were brought to the United States in the 1970s for vegetation control (they are plant-eaters) that they would thrive so well here, become a demand item for ethnic restaurants and grocery stores, and that they would spread as far as they have.  The original users, Arkansas ‘fist farm’ owners and various government agencies (who, ironically, saw the carp as being easier on the environment than chemical plant-control options), did not take a long-range view of what this fish, with no natural predators in our waters, might do over time.

Say’s Law informs us that ‘supply creates its’ own demand.’  Asian immigrants enjoy eating the carp that are native to their homelands; therefore, smuggling is an ever-present environmental threat, as a recent Detroit-Windsor  border-crossing apprehension shows.  The introduction of the asian carp was short-sighted; however, an environmental impact study likely would not have grappled with the profitable temptation posed by smuggling of this pest-cum-delicacy, as the latent demand for it an an ethnic dish would’ve been harder to foresee that the more natural spread of a species without predators or other obstacles to its’ propagation across an ever-wider swath of middle America.

We have, however, been here before. Unintended consequences resulting from the introduction of non-native flora and fauna are nothing new.  Jared Diamond even wrote an entire book about how such events, in part, influenced the rise, development and fall of many civilizations.  Closer to us in space and time is the fate of the magnificent American Chestnut, nearly wiped out by a blight carried here on imported European Chestnut lumber.  (The disease is hard on European Chestnuts, as well.)

The moral for us, in terms of public policy, would seem to be that all non-native species should be considered ‘guilty until proven innocent,’ in terms of their introduction into our ecosystems.  The same thinking would apply to ‘genetically modified organisms,’ or GMOs, as they are not, in their doctored-up form, native to any environment.  Given the prevalence of GMOs in our industrialized food chain, the havoc caused by, and perhaps still to come from the asian carp ought to warn sensible minds against tinkering with the environment that sustains our lives.

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