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Big alien fish closing in on Lake Ontario?

Massive carp that have been known to jump some 10 feet out of the water and wallop boaters in the Mississippi River have been spotted in Lake Erie -- much closer to Lake Ontario than previously reported. Only a couple of bighead carp have been caught in Lake Erie, though some biologists believe they spotted one July 17. Robert Wellington, an aquatic biologist with Erie County health department, was with some colleagues and a group of students in Presque Isle Bay when a massive fish surfaced.

"I would estimate that it could have been between 30 and 50 pounds," said Wellington, a lifelong angler. Others in the boat said it was about five feet long. "It was a tremendous fish," he said. Though they tried to catch it, they couldn't. "Until you get it in your hands, it's pretty much a fish tale," said Wellington, who will try again Thursday.

Chuck Murray, a biologist with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, said the fish sounded like a bighead carp, though he isn't that familiar with it. The fact that so few have been caught or spotted indicates to him that they've not been able to breed, he said.

Marc Gaden, a spokesman for the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission, said most biologists believe the bighead carp sightings in Lake Erie have been isolated incidents. But fisheries experts fear they will adapt eventually to the Great Lakes. The carp have been spotted as close as 25 miles from Lake Michigan in a canal connecting the lake to the Illinois River and the Mississippi. The Army Corps of Engineers has erected an electrical barrier that hopefully will stop the fish, Gaden said. "This has all the makings of another zebra mussel," he said. "Once the species makes the Great Lakes their home ... you can't get rid of them."

The carp were imported from Asia in the 1970s and 1980s to control plankton in fish farms in the south, said Jerry Rasmussen, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a coordinator with the Mississippi Interstate Cooperative Resource Association. "I've seen them jump into boats and I've seen them jump six to 10 feet into the air," he said. "They're pretty astounding." Though he hopes the barrier works, he said there's a good chance they'll get in.

The carp are just another recent example of invasive species threatening ecosystems across the U.S.

In Maryland, it was snakeheads -- predatory fanged fish from Asia that are able to move on land. Flathead catfish, native to western Pennsylvania waters, have been caught in the Susquehanna and Schuylkill rivers. And several pacu, a mostly vegetarian cousin of the piranha, have been caught in the Ohio River near Pittsburgh last fall.

While some nonnative fish are probably dumped from home aquariums and unable to survive for long -- which state fish biologists think was the pacus fate -- fisheries experts say invasive fish have the potential to cause havoc with aquatic ecosystems. "They can compete -- and sometimes out-compete -- with the native wildlife for food in that area, which can throw the ecosystem off," said Mitch Snow, a spokesman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

* Thu, 8/1/2002

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