Ugly Fish, Uglier Problem: Asian Carp in the Great Lakes of Canada

Ian T. D. Thomson

On October 3, the Great Lake Fishery Commission and Fisheries and Oceans Canada hosted a forum in Toronto on Asian carp, the invasive species that could threaten the ecosystem in the Great Lakes. While Asian carp may not sound like a pressing Canadian public policy issue, the presence of the invasive carp in the Great Lakes could pose a serious environmental impact. This public forum was an important step in informing the public, and is part of a multi-faceted policy plan to tackle the issue of this fish.

Asian carp in Canada

Asian carp collectively refer to four species of fish: bighead, black, silver and grass carp and  originated in the river systems of China and Russia. They were brought to North America to enhance water quality and began proliferating here in the 1970s. Through the effects of flooding, the species infiltrated 18 states and several rivers, including the Mississippi. Reports have shown that Asian carp accessed  the Great Lakes through the Mississippi River from the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal (CSSC), via the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS).

Environmental threat

carp-swimAsian carp out-compete other species when they enter the environment. They eat from five to 20 per cent of their body weight in food each day, more than most fish need to sustain their survival. Asian carp leave less microscopic plant and animal life to satisfy the diet of other aquatic species. Asian carp also present an environmental concern: their feasting on the ecosystem’s vegetation destroys the precious wetland ecosystem.

In addition to their aggressive diet, Asian carp can reproduce in large numbers: a single fish can produce up to 2 million eggs. This population dominance could lead to the extinction of Canadian native fish species in the Great Lakes.

Economic implications

The extinction of Canadian aquatic species would also affect the economy of Canada’s fisheries. The Great Lakes support world-class commercial and recreational fishing industries in both Canada and the U.S. A recent socio-economic risk assessment estimated that commercial fishing in the Great Lakes contributes $226.5 million per year to the Canadian economy. Fewer commercially-targeted native fish would significantly reduce catches and harvesters’ revenue, likely resulting in a decrease in gross profit for Canada’s fishing industry.

Invasive species

fishermanDue to the threat they pose to Canada’s Great Lakes ecosystem, Asian carp have been categorized as an aquatic invasive species. This categorization leads to different protocol fishermen must follow if they catch the fish. Catching an Asian carp requires one to note exact navigation coordinates and date of the catch, take notes of its features and photos of the catch, and file a report to either Fisheries and Oceans Canada or one’s provincial government. In contrast, when a recreational fisher catches a non-invasive fish, they will often release it back into the water—something they are not allowed to do with an Asian carp.

Given our society’s growing concern with treating animals humanely, the regulation forbidding the release of carp may seem shocking, but it’s necessary. Putting these harmful species back in the water can be detrimental to Canada’s ecosystem and habitat.

Current status

The species have not yet become fully established in all the Great Lakes. However, there have been reports of Asian carp sightings in parts of Lake Erie, including a sighting earlier in August 2016 of a fertile Grass carp by a commercial fisher. Risk assessments have made it abundantly clear that if more Asian carp make their way into Canada, they will be able to proliferate in the Lakes. A binational risk assessment conducted by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the US Geological Survey in 2011 showed that the likelihood of the fish to become established into the Great Lakes (excluding Superior) was ranked from “very likely” to “high certainty.” The 2011 assessment also demonstrated that there is a moderate-to-high likelihood that Asian carp could occupy the Great Lakes in less than 20 years if at least ten breeding Asian carp pairs enter one of the Great Lakes.

Risk assessments have made it abundantly clear that if more Asian Carp make their way into Canada, they will be able to proliferate in the Lakes.

Current policies

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has developed policies designed to prevent the spread of Asian carp. The ministry has two main areas of focus in stopping its proliferation: (1) halting their movement at the geographical source; and (2) preventing individuals from bringing them into Canada.

The CAWS is a major shipping route between Canada and the U.S. and is one of the most likely points of entrance for Asian carp into the Great Lakes. Canada has worked with American organizations including the United States Army Corps of Engineers, who have developed electromagnetic fields designed to repel fish from swimming up into Canada. The first field was developed in 2002.

While it is necessary to not put the fish back in water upon its catch, it is also illegal to buy, sell or hold live Asian carp in Ontario and US-Great Lake states.

DFO enforces tough regulations on live Asian carp possession. Fishermen are not permitted to release Asian carp back into the water upon capture, and it is illegal to buy, sell, or hold live Asian carp in Ontario and U.S. Great Lakes states. The Department has worked with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to ensure food fish importers and retailers comply with the rules and regulations. In 2011 and 2012, the Ministry convicted and fined several fish haulers who were carrying over 13 thousand kilograms of Asian carp into Canada.

DFO also aims to increase public awareness through forums such as one held on October 3 in Toronto. The department informs the public upon capture of Asian carp and provides public updates on the status of the issue. Additionally, the department informs communities who may be directly involved or affected. Canadian immigrants must be informed about the dangers of an invasion given that Asian carp are a traditional food in some parts of Asia. The department also communicates with Indigenous communities regarding the impact Asian carp could have on their fisheries and the traditional use of lake resources.

DFO is not alone in this pursuit; several other organizations at the non-profit, provincial, and international level aim to protect the Great Lakes, such as the Canada Border Services Agency, the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee (ACRCC), and the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC).

“The effort to prevent an Asian carp invasion involves many agencies, organizations, and stakeholders, and is a prime example of how cooperation is the foundation of fishery management in the Great Lakes basin,” said David Ullrich, Chair of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission in a recent press release.


DFO has regulations and policies aimed at tackling Asian carp and other aquatic invasive species; however, this remains a difficult threat to combat. Similar to the naturally dynamic epidemic of antibiotic resistance, Asian carp, through natural selection, could become the dominant species in the Great Lakes.

The November 2015 mandate letter from the Prime Minister to the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard explicitly stresses a “commitment to protect the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River Basin, and the Lake Winnipeg Basin.”

While the letter makes no mention of invasive aquatic species, a broader mandate to protect the Canada’s lakes—coupled with the government’s prioritization of environmental matters—means Canadians should demand that the government continue to take seriously the enforcement of DFO’s Asian carp policies and regulations.

Ian T. D. Thomson is a 2018 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance.  He holds a Bachelor of Science Honours degree in Psychology and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy from the University of Manitoba. His policy interests include broadcast and telecommunications policy, cultural policy and fisheries policy.  


15 Comments Add yours

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