Experts: Mussels hog food source


Associated Press

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich.

If huge, hungry Asian carp reach Lake Michigan, their long-dreaded invasion may turn out to be less ferocious than once expected because a tiny competitor is gobbling up their primary food source, some Great Lakes researchers say.

The quagga mussel, a thumbnail-sized foreign mollusk first spotted in the lakes two decades ago, has devoured so much plankton in southern Lake Michigan that the entire food web is being altered, federal and university scientists reported in a series of newly published articles.

Mussels have “beaten the Asian carp to the buffet table,” Gary Fahnenstiel, senior ecologist with NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, said recently. “While the public has been worried about Asian carp and the Chicago canal, another invader has fundamentally changed the lake and made it inhospitable to the Asian carp.”

Some biologists and government officials say if the carp get a foothold in Lake Michigan, they could spread to most of the Great Lakes and vacuum up enough plankton to threaten collapse of the $7 billion fishery. But Fahnenstiel and other researchers said the quagga mussel is a greater danger.

Some types of microscopic plants have declined more than 80 percent with the mussel’s arrival, they said, which probably explains a similar drop-off of a freshwater shrimp species that is a dietary staple for small fish pursued by prized sport varieties such as salmon and trout.

Other scientists and policymakers insisted the carp could survive and even thrive in a plankton-depleted environment.

“They can eat other things besides plankton,” said Duane Chapman, a U.S. Geological Survey fisheries biologist. “They are very flexible fish.”

Bighead and silver carp — Asian varieties threatening to enter Lake Michigan through Chicago-area rivers and canals — are filter feeders that consume up to 40 percent of their body weight daily. The biggest can grow to 4 feet in length and weigh 100 pounds.

But Fahnenstiel said that if carp evade electronic barriers and reach the lake, they’ll probably find so little nourishment they’ll either go back or starve.

Chapman is based at the Columbia Environmental Research Center in Missouri, where researchers are measuring Asian carp’s appetite for substances that will remain abundant in the Great Lakes even where plankton runs short. One example: bits of food the mussels spit out rather than digest.

Another is cladophora, a green algae that annoys beachgoers by washing ashore in stinky, rotting clumps. The cause of its resurgence in recent years is unknown but some believe it’s linked to the mussels, which improve clarity as they filter water, allowing sunlight to penetrate deeper.

“Chances are pretty good that Asian carp would do just fine eating that stuff, but we’re going to test it to make sure,” Chapman said.

Quagga and zebra mussels, believed to have hitched a ride from Europe to the Great Lakes in ballast tanks of freighter ships in the 1980s, have wreaked ecological havoc and done hundreds of millions in damage to all the lakes except Superior, where only isolated colonies have been found.

Scientists say whitefish and salmon, two of Lake Michigan’s most popular species, have gotten smaller in recent years, a probable sign of malnutrition from a deteriorating food web.

Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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