By Maureen Hayden CNHI Statehouse Bureau
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — When Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller decided to take a boat ride down the Wabash River to raise awareness about the damage being done by the invasive Asian carp, he was offered this advice by a fish expert: Wear a helmet.
Zoeller may not pack protective gear with him when he heads out on the state’s most iconic river today, but he’ll be on the lookout for the whopper-size “flying fish” wreaking havoc on Indiana waterways.
He’s seen the YouTube videos of them hurtling themselves out of the Wabash and heard stories from wary boaters who are careful where they tread. “Because,” as Zoeller said, “the fish will literally jump up and hit you in the face.”
But the danger the Asian carp pose is bigger than their size, which is why Zoeller has invited the man known as the White House’s “Asian carp czar,” John Goss, to join him for the first leg of his nearly 400-mile trip.
Zoeller — who’s making the river trip on a donated boat and using no taxpayers funds for it — wants Goss to carry the message back to Washington, D.C., that Indiana needs help combating what both men call the “Asian carp crisis.”
Goss’ official job is to keep self-sustaining populations of the fecund and voracious Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes and destroying the region’s ecosystem and its $7 billion fishing industry.
But Zoeller also wants that job to include helping Indiana eradicate the self-sustaining populations of Asian carp that are already here and wreaking environmental havoc.
“The real risk is that these things eat everything,” said Zoeller of the species that was brought over from Asia to the U.S. in the 1970s — with the federal government’s blessing — to clean up the bottoms of catfish ponds and sewage treatment plants.
“They literally denude rivers of the nutrients that smaller fish eat,” Zoeller said. “And if you don’t have little fish, you don’t have bigger fish.”
Goss already knows the damage done by Asian carp, which are now present in Indiana in the Wabash, White and Ohio Rivers.
Before he was tapped by the Obama administration in 2010 to oversee the federal fight against Asian carp, he was head of the Indiana chapter of the National Wildlife Federation, and had been director of the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
Goss worked with state and federal officials to install electrified fences in the Illinois River to keep the Asian carp from spreading north into Lake Michigan. He also worked with state officials on a “fish fence” that’s been installed near Fort Wayne to keep Asian carp from spreading to a marsh fed by a river that has connectors to Lake Erie.
During a visit to the Wabash River near Terre Haute last summer, Goss told the Tribune-Star newspaper, “Indiana sits right in the middle of the carp issue.” He also said the cost of getting rid of the carp is “astronomical.”
Asian carp have no natural predators, they’re prolific reproducers and the eggs they spawn in the fast-flowing waters they favor can end up 50 or 60 miles down river. And since they don’t bite on worm or insect bait, the only way to catch them is with a net.
Three years ago, Zoeller stepped into the Asian carp issue when he filed, on behalf of the state of Indiana, an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in support of Michigan’s legal efforts to force Illinois to shut down its shipping locks to keep the Asian carp out of Lake Michigan.
The high court declined to hear the case, but Zoeller and attorneys general in neighboring Great Lake states have continued to pressure the federal government to help them protect their own waterways.
Last summer, during his campaign for re-election, Zoeller traveled the Ohio River and stopped along the way to talk about the Asian carp threat and other issues impacting the river. He liked the trip so much, that he decided to travel the Wabash River this summer.
“We forget we have some of the most spectacular rivers in the U.S.,” Zoeller said. “We shouldn’t take them for granted.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.