Asian carp are an invasive species that have dramatically damaged US waterways. Environmentalists are scrambling to find solutions to prevent the devastation that may ensue as the carp encroach upon the Great Lakes. However, current solutions to maintain these ecosystems are inherently unethical. Human response to the carp invasion reveals how ecological decision making influenced by human-centric environmentalist ethics is unsuitable when dealing with man-made problems. Instead, humans must consider what ethical obligations they have to protect the environment and repair damage done to the US waterway system.
In 2019, the US Fish and Wildlife Service was alarmed at having discovered Asian carp DNA only seven miles from Lake Michigan . Although the arrival of the fish may not pose an immediate threat, Asian carp have been multiplying through US waterways for the last three decades while leaving damaged ecosystems in their wake. Environmentalists and economists alike are concerned for the safety of the Great Lakes, which house one-fifth of the world’s freshwater supply and annually contribute seven billion dollars to the fishing industry [2, 3]. As carp begin to invade the Great Lakes, the efficacy of current preventative measures must be evaluated before the damage done becomes irrevocable.
Creating Invasive Carp
Asian carp are not a naturally occurring threat to the Great Lakes. They were imported from China in the 1970s to curb the overgrowth of algae, snail, and parasite populations in the Midwest . The carp were classified as a non-native species, which is any species that exists outside their native ecosystem due to human intervention. During this time, their growth was completely unregulated, and only two years after being brought to the US, their population skyrocketed to 380,000 . By the 1990s, heavy rains allowed these fish to escape their contained ponds to cross into the Mississippi River, introducing them to one of the most integral water-traffic ways in the US.
This migration from contained ponds to the greater US river system is how Asian carp earned their invasive classification. An invasive species is a non-native species that begins to harm and destabilize ecosystems . The bighead carp, black carp, grass carp, and silver carp, broadly known as Asian carp, became invasive due to their exponential breeding habits and lack of natural predators . As of today, more Asian carp reside in the state of Illinois than in all of China . That’s because one female carp is capable of laying hundreds of thousands of eggs in a single spawn . Their reproductive abilities combined with a lack of competition from predators have allowed them to easily outcompete and displace native species. This can also be attributed to the fact that Asian carp are very large fish. They can weigh more than 100 pounds and eat up to 20 percent of their body weight daily. They have overconsumed plankton in the Mississippi River and are responsible for a 90 percent decline of plankton in that river – plankton that most of the river’s native fish and mussel species depend on consuming to survive . This has severely thrown off the balance of the river’s ecosystem, as Asian carp are monopolizing precious resources and forcing native species from their homes. With no natural predators to curb their growth, the problem will only get worse.
From the Mississippi to the Great Lakes
In addition to introducing Asian carp to US waterways, humans are also responsible for creating a pathway for the fish to enter the Great Lakes. In the 1800s, the city of Chicago was using its river system as a landfill for chemical byproducts, sewage, and pollutants. This waste flowed directly into Lake Michigan – the main source of potable water for the city. Unsurprisingly, the citizens of Chicago contracted serious illness from their drinking water and required an immediate solution to decontaminate it . That idea came in 1871 when city officials decided to permanently reverse the direction of the Chicago River . An artificial canal, known as the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (CSSC), was constructed to direct sewage away from Chicago’s water supply and towards the Des Plaines Riverway . This engineering feat created a direct connection between the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan. Today, this connection provides a route between the Mississippi and the Great Lakes that Asian carp are now approaching.
Asian Carp’s Impact on the Great Lakes
Asian carp are severely disrupting the balance of marine life in the Mississippi River and threaten to do even worse to the Great Lakes. The ecosystems of the Great Lakes are less productive than those of moving rivers like the Mississippi, meaning these areas are hypersensitive to environmental disruptions. Additionally, the carp threaten the $7 billion fishing industry supplied by the biodiversity in the Great Lakes . Much of this money supports small businesses and local communities. As native species are being forced out, so too is the revenue that they generate. Thus, the arrival of Asian carp threatens the stability of both marine and human life. In response to this threat, humans have begun trying to limit their entry into the Great Lakes.
Stopping the Spread: Culling Methods
Current preventative measures against Asian carp seek to halt movement, reduce population size, and eradicate the species within the US. One of the most notable prevention methods is the $778 million electric barrier in the CSSC that was built to prevent carp entry into Lake Michigan . The electric barrier extends 25 miles and uses 2.3-volt-per-inch jolts of electricity every 2.5 milliseconds as a means of non-lethally preventing the carp from passing through the canal . It should be noted that the canal does not solely halt the migration of Asian carp; it deters all fish from passing through.
Other forms of prevention are more lethal. Currently, the state of Illinois has contracted fishermen to exterminate Asian carp from these waterways. Locals have also been encouraged to hunt Asian carp for sport using arrows, tennis rackets, bats, and swords to bludgeon the carp when they jump out of the water . Fish pesticides, also known as piscicides, have also been used. Rotenone is the main chemical used to eliminate Asian carp, though these chemicals are non-selective; routine piscicide treatment results in the death of all fish within the exposure radius .
Anthropocentric environmental ethics involves making decisions that preserve the welfare of human beings before protecting the environment. It states that humans hold a moral superiority over other natural objects. Most engineering ethical frameworks are anthropocentric, so environmentalists make decisions regarding their impact on other humans. For example, favoring climate change solutions is considered ethical because it promotes the welfare of future generations of humans. The environment is seen as something instrumental to human survival, not as something inherently worthy of being saved .
Anthropocentric environmentalism seems to validate the measures taken against Asian carp. This human-centric lens allows ethical duties to be fulfilled, as conservation efforts have been motivated by human preservation. It is thought that without preventative measures, Asian carp will invade the Great Lakes by 2071 . This impending threat provides ethical reasoning for current preventative measures, and ignoring these responsibilities could be viewed as a consciously unethical choice that would endanger both the surrounding ecosystem and the welfare of human beings.
Failures in the Anthropocentric Approach
Anthropocentric decision-making regarding Asian carp relies on the current perceived value of Asian carp. Under this approach, the ethics of ecological decisions becomes purely contextual. When first importing these fish to the US, they had high perceived value and were beneficial to the welfare of humans. This value diminished once their presence became perceived as negative. Current solutions to cull Asian carp rely on biased power dynamics in which humans decide the value of other living things. This reveals that anthropocentric-based solutions are ill-equipped to deal with environmental engineering matters.
Anthropocentric-based decisions also fail to hold humans accountable for the problems they create. When the consequences of human intervention in US waterways are ignored, the crude preventative measures enforced upon Asian carp become justifiable. The Asian carp’s impending invasion of the Great Lakes is a direct consequence of artificially manipulating US waterways and importing foreign fish into US ecosystems. The damage done to the environment highlights how anthropocentric decisions fail to protect its safety. The welfare of the Great Lakes is not a priority; rather, its exploitation as an economic investment is the priority under anthropocentrism. Instead of using a framework that upholds human exploitation of environments, a framework that can provide environment-centered decisions should be applied.
The biocentric approach to environmental ethics is a newer framework that can be used to analyze the problems of Asian carp in the Great Lakes. Biocentrism aims to move away from the superiority that humans award to themselves under the anthropocentric framework. It expands intrinsic value to all natural elements, regarding people as equals to all other forms of nature. Under this framework, all living things hold an intrinsic value which means that engineers have an ethical responsibility to preserve the well-being of nature .
Biocentric decisions must follow four duty-based responsibilities: duties of restitutive justice, non-interference, nonmaleficence, and environmental fidelity . Duty-based responsibilities focus on doing what is right rather than considering the consequences. In relation to environmental ethics, duties are concerned with the rightness of environmental actions, rather than the rightness of their outcomes. More appropriate solutions that protect US waterways and the life that resides within them can be deduced by using these guidelines.
Restitutive justice states that humans must rectify the damage done to the environment . Currently, such duties are being ignored at the Great Lakes. The invasion of Asian carp is a human-induced catastrophe. Humans cultivated Asian carp into an invasive species by importing them to the US and creating the CSSC. Moreover, culling practices are disturbing the ecosystems they are supposed to protect. In 2009, over 2,300 gallons of rotenone were dumped into the Chicago River to reduce the Asian carp population. Instead of removing carp, over 200,000 pounds of dead fish were collected, most of which were native species . Furthermore, Asian carp eDNA was recently discovered near Lake Michigan. This indicates that current preventative measures have failed. This death toll, combined with the ineffectiveness of current electric barriers, is a violation of society’s ethical responsibility to protect US ecosystems. This shows that humans have a larger duty to restore the disorder they have imposed on current US waterways .
The duty of nonmaleficence refers to not harming surrounding environments, and the duty of environmental fidelity refers to refraining from deceptively manipulating the environment . Together, these duties can be applied to the current ethical dilemma in the Great Lakes. Recall that the CSSC was created after humans contaminated a natural body of water, and the canal is responsible for giving carp access to the Great Lakes. This intentional alteration to the environment also allowed trash to flow from one body of water into another. These were obvious violations of nonmaleficence and environmental fidelity. Now, preventative measures are being used to rectify the consequences of these poor ethical decisions. Nonmaleficence is also violated by the violent culling methods being practiced. While the electric barrier provided a less violent method of slowing Asian carp, the brutalization of these fish through piscicides and bludgeoning tournaments reveals an unethical approach to a human-made problem. Humans must move beyond surface-level solutions that ignore ethical responsibility. Instead, more reasonable measures need to be implemented that target problems caused by human negligence to US ecosystems.
The most ethical solution to this problem would be to close the CSSC. Though a nearly $4 billion price tag may seem extreme, such an idea is not so farfetched . Current methods of halting Asian carp have shown to be both unethical and impractical, with little success in slowing their migration into the Great Lakes. A more robust solution would be closing the artificial canal that gave rise to the issue. Doing so would restore the human-caused damages imposed on Asian carp and the larger US waterway system. Biocentrism enforces a moral obligation to repair this damage by stopping the culling of Asian carp and reversing the modifications made to US ecosystems.
Closing the CSSC rectifies the potential threat of Asian carp invasion by separating the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River, thereby fulfilling society’s duty to protect the sanctity of its environment. The entry of Chicago’s pollution into the Mississippi River via the CSSC has resulted in serious ecological ramifications including toxic algae blooms and loss of biodiversity . Thus, it is evident that all modifications to these waterways violated our duties of nonmaleficence and fidelity. If the duties enforced by biocentrism are followed, they will provide a more appropriate solution that reverses ecological damage, rather than furthering it.
Current decision-making techniques are inappropriate for dealing with the problem of Asian carp. These anthropocentric-based efforts are largely inconsistent, resulting in the unethical culling of Asian carp to remediate the larger problem of human interference. Biocentrism critically identifies the role humans play in creating invasiveness. This framework considers how the import of Asian carp and the development of the CSSC have created a great ethical responsibility to rectify the damage done near the Great Lakes. When dealing with invasiveness, the most responsible course of action is to direct attention to the source of the problem: humans. Since current actions have proven to be ineffective, an environmental ethics framework is necessary to remedy the threat of Asian carp at the Great Lakes.
By Christopher Jewell, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California
About the Author
At the time of writing this paper, Chris was a junior studying biomedical engineering with an emphasis in mechanical engineering. He hopes to pursue a career in industry.
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Links for Further Reading:
This Pulitzer finalist tells the entire story of the engineering faults of the Great Lakes
Read about the current efforts to popularize Asian carp as a US delicacy
Discover how experts are campaigning for a new name for Asian carp to qualm their notoriety