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Carp fight in high gear as DNA shows fish heading north

A photo taken in Illinois shows how silver Asian carp, such as those that could be in Minnesota rivers, can jump out of the water. At times, the fish have been known to hit boaters. Submitted photo

ST. PAUL - Minnesota is kicking up its Asian carp fight after test results show the invasive fish that can out-eat native species could be upstream from the Twin Cities.

The discovery opens the possibility that the fish could be headed to central and northern Minnesota's lake country.

"In my mind what this does is put the pedal on the gas harder," Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said Thursday in announcing three tests results show silver Asian carp DNA upstream from the Coon Rapids Dam in the northwestern Twin Cities, long thought to be the best barrier to prevent the carp from advancing.

The bad news is the carp may be in waters above the Twin Cities.

The good news is experience elsewhere has shown the carp take years to build large populations, giving Minnesota time to fight back.

Silver carp are well known for leaping out of the water, at times hitting boaters.

No live fish have been found near Coon Rapids, so the DNR's Tim Schlagenhaft said the agency is investigating the possibility that the results may be false. However, he added, officials are taking action as if they found live fish upstream from the dam.

"The risk of these fish getting upstream is too high" to await further tests, Schlagenhaft said. In any case, he added, "we think the populations are low, if they are here."

The latest test results continue a series that show Asian carp DNA to be in the Mississippi and a major tributary, the St. Croix River.

Schlagenhaft said the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is considering expanding tests to the Minnesota River and the Crow River, which connects to Mille Lacs Lake and other northern popular Minnesota vacation lakes.

At the same time that scientists are looking the Mississippi and its tributaries, invasive carp are threatening Lake Superior and the Red River of the North.

Schlagenhaft said Asian carp already are in the Red River system, being discovered in North Dakota's James River. And fish could swim into the Red when flood waters connect it with the Minnesota River.

DNR officials are awaiting test results from above the St. Croix Falls Dam in eastern Minnesota, which if positive could mean the fish somehow got past the tall structure and are headed to northwestern Wisconsin.

Carp are slipping into the Great Lakes through a controversial Chicago canal connecting Lake Michigan and the Illinois River.

In a conference call with reporters, Kelly Baerwaldt of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the fish remained in the Illinois River 20 years before turning into a major problem.

Schlagenhaft said they quickly can swim long distances in high water, such as during recent and frequent Minnesota floods.

Gov. Mark Dayton, who hosts his third invasive fish summit on Dec. 20, last month indicated he wants to be ready with a response to the carp in the spring, but Schlagenhaft said no fish barrier can be erected sooner than six months. It would be a barrier of bubbles in the Mississippi at St. Paul.

In a November meeting Dayton hosted, Gary Botzek, representing environmental and other organizations, said the Coon Rapids dam was key to keeping carp out of northern waters.

"If we let them get to Coon Rapids, the battle is over," Botzek said.

The carp have huge appetites and devour food native fish need. Scientists fear that if carp take over rivers it will push native fish out of the way.

Catching live Asian carp to prove they are in a specific area is difficult, especially when populations are low, said Schlagenhaft, who is based in Lake City.

Commercial fisherman will be hired to try to catch them near Coon Rapids.

Only a few of the fish have been caught in Minnesota waters, but they are well established south of the state on the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri rivers.

The fish were brought to the United States in the 1970s to keep algae down in farm ponds. Since then, they escaped into the wild.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.