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Bighead carp a big-time threat to Great Lakes ecosystem

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Bighead carp a big-time threat to Great Lakes ecosystem



Monday, Oct. 19, 2009

JOSH WINGROVE / Globe and Mail




Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources officers monitor the trade in bigheads,

which may not be kept and sold alive



On a bed of ice cubes, only a few scraps remain.


Half a dozen tails ($2.79 a pound) and two huge heads ($1.99 a pound), under a sign written in English and Chinese: bighead, a type of carp.


Here at Hua Sheng Supermarket, and at others along Spadina Avenue, the fish are a moderately popular choice among shoppers, most of them Chinese.


"I'd say it's good," shrugs Hu Wen Jie, one of the salesmen, saying they sell about 100 pounds of the carp each week. They used to sell more. "Before, we'd sell it swimming."


He means the carp were sold alive, a practice now illegal in Ontario. The province is going after the fish, widely considered the worst nightmare of the Great Lakes ecosystem.


Bighead carp grow, multiply, and move quickly, beating other fish to food. They can grow to be a metre long and 45 kilograms in weight - the heads in Hua Sheng are the size of a road yield sign.




U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Services/AP

A U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Services officer holds a bighead carp captured in the Illinois River.



Since the U.S. imported the fish from Asia to clear algae out of ponds, bighead have expanded out of control. They've moved through the Mississippi River system, overtaking it and other waterways and leaving little in their wake. U.S. officials are trying electric fences and poison to keep them from spreading to the Great Lakes.


(There's even a U.S. national action plan; It's 265 pages long.)


Ontario, too, is on the offensive against the fish, also called Asian carp. In 2004, the province banned the sale of live bighead, punishable by fines for any store owner found guilty. Dead ones may still be sold. The fines for selling the live fish range from $3,500 to $6,500 for retailers found with a few fish, and upwards of $10,000 for a convicted wholesaler, precedent suggests. Eight people have been convicted so far.


The most recent came last week, when Fu Yao Supermarket, located on Gerrard Street East was fined $4,500 after Ministry of Natural Resources investigators found a pair of live bighead in the store late last year.


"The harm associated with the existence of these fish alive in the Great Lakes region is extraordinary," Crown prosecutor Tania Monteiro told the court.


With that, the judge started nodding. He explained he was a sportsman and had seen tapes of the fish in United States rivers. Stirred by the sound of passing engines, the bighead jump. They've been known to break the nose of a passing boater.


"You're talking to the converted here," the judge said.


Roger Gosbee, Fu Yao Supermarket's lawyer, said it was an honest mistake - the manager had gone on lunch when the MNR investigators showed up. Staff started unpacking 98 pounds of dead bighead, but found two live ones in the shipment.


They simply tossed them in the aquarium, the lawyer later explained in an interview. It was that mistake that cost the store $4,500.


"My client takes this matter seriously. It was a mistake by an employee," Mr. Gosbee told the court.


The ministry says the province's eight convictions have resulted in $112,000 in fines. Officers go door to door at retailers and wholesalers across the province looking for violations. The problem is unique in Toronto, where demand for the product, dead or alive, clashes with efforts to keep it out of the waterways. It has made ministry enforcement officers semi-regular guests in Chinatowns.


"The demand for a fresh product is what creates non-compliance 'hot-spots,' " ministry spokesman Matthew Orok said in an e-mail. "If a market can demonstrate that their product is fresher than the competition then they can move more of this product. The easiest way to demonstrate 'freshness' with regards to fish is to have them alive in the store."


The challenge is getting the word out, particularly in the Chinese community. Along Spadina, there are whispers of where live bighead may still be available. Scarborough, one person says, while another says to try the United States.


"For a few years now, no one has been allowed to sell it," says Chen Shi Young, Mr. Hu's boss and the Hua Sheng manager on duty one recent night.


Told of the fine handed to Fu Yao, his competitor, he is surprised - though his own employee had earlier confided that Hua Sheng had, too, been fined under the law years earlier.


"They [Fu Yao] were not careful ... When the fish comes, it has to be dead," said Mr. Chen, "As long as they're not swimming in an aquarium, you're okay."




The fish: Bighead carp


The cost: $1.99 to $3.49 per pound


The source: Legally sold bighead is imported from the southern United States. It's illegal to have a live bighead carp in Ontario.


The guilty: There have been eight convictions since a 2004 law banned the possession and sale of the fish. The fines total $112,000.


The enforcement: Ministry of Natural Resources officers patrol markets and wholesalers across the province. They're looking for bighead; grass, another carp; snakeheads; round and tubenose gobies; ruffe; silver carp and black carp. All are invasive species.


The targets: "Supermarkets, wholesale facilities, restaurants and even the pet trade (aquarium stores)," spokesman Matthew Orok said in an e-mail.


The threat: If introduced to Ontario waterways, the result could be catastrophic. The fish overtake most ecosystems they live in, beating other fish to food and reproducing quickly. "The reason for this ban is due to the ecological damage these species are capable of with regards to displacement of native species, and to stop the spread of these invasive species into our aquatic environments," Mr. Orok said.

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