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Asian Carp Frenzy: The Immigrant Experience

NONFICTION
(Photo by Getty Images)
THE IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE
Carp not first newcomer to receive cool welcome
By Joe Abramajtys
Date of publication: 
September 13, 2011

Let's start with the story of Violet Ooh and the American Dream.

Violet Ooh is Asian-American. Her ancestors and countrymen were brought to this country and pressed into labor to do the bidding of others. It started in earnest in 1865 when 10,000 Asians were brought from China and forced into back-breaking labor building the transcontinental railway. By 1880 there were 75,000 Chinese immigrants in California — almost one-tenth the population — doing menial labor for pitiful wages, and being subjected to continuous violence.

The American experience regarding immigrants has always been, and is today, schizophrenic: they are brought in to do the shit work other, older, established groups shun — forced to live in camps and ghettos circumscribed by barriers: economic, legal (zoning laws and covenants), and often physical in the form of highways and industrial and commercial zones. At first demonized, reviled, and discriminated and legislated against, but if they can hold out long enough, and build demographic size and enough economic and political wealth, the worm turns and they become the darlings of the American Dream, gleaming models held high as an example for what the currently arriving bedeviled group might one day achieve. Someday. Maybe.

The story is similar for Violet Ooh’s ancestors: Brought from Asia in 1973 and thrown into jobs cleaning Arkansas sewage plant holding tanks, swine lagoons, and bacteria and detritus laden ponds, until some of them escaped their plight to live free in better circumstances, but to still face formidable barriers.

Violet Ooh, of course, is a silver carp, one of those that You-Tube clips show jumping high out of the water when disturbed, smacking boaters in the face — looks funny until you know Ms. Ooh can achieve 59 pounds.

Because Violet Ooh has no stomach, she must eat continuously; she can consume up to 20 percent of her body weight each day. She doesn’t eat other fish (fry, fingerlings, juveniles, or adults) but does eat their eggs, and most of her diet consists of microscopic plants (phytoplankton) and animals (zooplankton), which she strains from the water with specialized gill rakers stuck in sponge-like porous plates. Ms. Ooh is also fond of fish eggs and insect larvae. She is also fecund, capable of laying five million eggs a season.

The lady has a big appetite, is high maintenance, and knows how to put out: an all-around big broad. In addition, like most other immigrants, Violet Ooh is in quest of a dream.

The Industry

Buddy Furlong is owner/operator of the Q-Tip, a Bayliner cabin cruiser outfitted as a charter fishing boat, home-ported in Grand Haven, Michigan. Buddy inherited the boat from his dad, an ear-nose-and throat specialist who claimed patient misuse of cotton swabs to clean their ears impacted them with earwax, which he then had to remove, thus earning him the dough for the boat. I spoke with Buddy as he was preparing for the coming lake trout, salmon, and steelhead seasons when he makes half his income; the other half derives from a charter fishing service he runs in the winter out of Titusville, Florida. Taking people sport fishing is a good life. Buddy is waiting to see if Asian carp invade the Great lakes and ruin half his livelihood and destroy his idyll. Buddy has a bunch of money invested in his boat, licenses, docking rights, and equipment, and he makes a decent living pleasing others. Buddy hopes the government can keep the Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

Many others also want Violet Ooh and her kind kept out. They fear she will disrupt the food chain and threaten the Great lakes salmon fishery, which has been worth $4 billion annually. Buddy’s boat is one of many that operate in the $1.8 million Grand Haven charter industry that in 2009 caught 9,580 salmon. In addition, anglers with their own boats, or fishing from river banks are part of another $1.36 million industry that landed another 14,470 salmon just in the Grand Haven area. That’s a hell of a lot of fish and big bucks spent on everything from burgers to beer in only one location on the Great Lakes. Charter rates are not cheap: plan on forking over about $500 for a six hour trip for up to four people, plus a fuel surcharge when fuel is over $3.50/gallon.

Buddy Furlong is a Republican with Tea Party sympathies and supports limiting government spending and influence in his life. He is a member of the Great Lakes Charter Association, and the Michigan Charter Boat Association, and relies on their clout with local, state, and federal politicians to make his concerns heard.

“What are the problems with Great Lakes fishing?” I asked Buddy as he wielded a cordless screwdriver mounting new downrigger hardware on his boat’s gunnels.

“Well, the salmon is the most sought after fish in the Great Lakes and not enough of them are being planted to keep their numbers strong. Only about half the salmon are naturally born, the rest must be planted. The number caught is declining each year, as is their average weight.”

“What do you mean by ‘planted’?”

“The Great Lakes states raise young salmon and release them into rivers.”

“Where do they get the salmon eggs to hatch and grow young salmon?”

“They electrify the rivers that salmon use for spawning, stun the fish, and take their eggs.”

“So without these periodic government releases, the Great Lakes salmon fishing industry would likely die.”

“Yup.”

Up until the current economic downturn, an important part of the charter business has always been corporate entertainment. All sport fishing is entertainment in one sense or another, but drinking with a bunch of clients on the stern of a large boat — while the crew does all the preliminaries to hooking a fish, gaffing it once it’s brought along side, unhooking the creature, and resetting all the lures downriggers and lines — seems as remote to "fishing" as carousing at a topless bar: a purely vicarious experience.

Disclosure: I’ve tried charter fishing on Lake Michigan for salmon and don’t see the appeal. I know there are times when the fish are biting so strong, and the charter boats so thick, that it seems like a fisherman’s feeding frenzy, but most of the time, especially in recent years, there’s lots of time between catches and all you do is drink, eat, and gain weight (beer, doughnuts, and sandwiches are de rigueur and not included in the price).

I’ve done most every kind of fishing in the Great Lakes region, and consider salmon charters the most boring. Like writing, fishing is a solitary business best engaged in for what you might catch and the strategies employed, and for contemplation, meditation, and reverie during the often lengthy periods between bites — all mindful activities productive in isolation and quiet, but not on the back of a big expensive boat churning its way through stomach-wrenching lake swells while you breathe in diesel exhaust fumes, with the captain all the while frantically raising and lowering the down-riggers and changing lures because he knows you’re thinking I paid good cash for this ride and I’m not catching a thing. At least he wants you to leave with the impression he worked his tail off trying to accommodate you. The pity factor: maybe that alone will bring you back.

But I kept my opinions to myself and instead raised my main interest, “So what do you think of the Asian carp threat?”

“They got to keep it out,” Buddy said without hesitation. “It’ll kill our business.” He put down his drill and looked sternly at me. “They eat the bait fish and small game fish and will muscle out the salmon and other game fish.”

“Actually,” I ventured, “my understanding is they don’t eat other fish except maybe their eggs.”

“Whatever,” Buddy snapped back as if to spit. “The effect is the same. I’ll be S.O.L. I hope the hell that electric barrier works.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joe Abramajtys was born in Niagara Falls, New York, and has lived and fished all his life in the Great Lakes Region. After his retirement from the Michigan Department of Corrections as a prison warden he went back to Grand Valley State University to study writing.

He is a contributing editor for Wake — he and his wife Nell ride their Harley Road King throughout the Great Lakes and he blogs about the experiences — and is working on a book about his life as a warden and as a world traveler. Joe has a three-year-old grandson with whom he spends lots of time and whom he is teaching how to fish.