By Luke Furman
The grass carp, one of four Asian carp that pose an ecological threat to Lake Erie, is no stranger to North America. In fact, it’s been used here for more than five decades.
Native to the Yangtze River in China, the grass carp possesses natural benefits that led to the species’ importation to Arkansas in 1963 in order to control riverweeds. By the early 1980s, American pond-owners had been using diploid, or fertile, and triploid, or sterile, grass carp for decades to control weed and algae growth in ponds for a more well-balanced ecosystem and natural appearance. Among the grass carp’s favorite subterranean flora include Chara, Naiads, Hydrilla and Elodea, according to the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. Not to mention, the bony, cigar-shaped fish is widely consumed for its uncharacteristic non-fishy taste.
But if left to its own instinctual devices and voracious appetite, the diploid grass carp poses a great potential threat to the vegetation of the 11th largest lake in the world.
Grass carp that have either escaped from ponds or traveled up the Mississippi River Basin have been found in rivers surrounding Lake Erie since 1980, but the most recent problem has its origins in 2012. It was that year when four one-year-old diploid grass carp were discovered in the Sandusky River by a commercial fisherman, said Duane Chapman, a researcher for the United States Geological Survey and a leading expert on Asian carp.
Chapman said the discovery of grass carp is an indication that bighead and silver carp could also be spawning in the waterway, and the only way to check for the fertility of the fish is through a blood sample, creating an extra level of difficulty in detection.
Many states have placed restrictions on the introduction of diploid grass carp more than other fish because of its dominating tendencies. It’s been legal to stock triploid grass carp — but not diploid — in ponds in Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania and New York, Chapman said, while the states of Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas and Mississippi allow the introduction of diploids. Chapman also said that some “nefarious fish dealings” that skirt laws along with loose regulations might lead to unwanted fish getting into rivers and tributaries.
“Grass carp are inconsistent engineers. They have potential to do a lot of damage and also all they do is eat the areas they like,” Chapman said. “Lake Erie is most at risk because it is the warmest (of the Great Lakes) and its vegetation is already at risk.”
Grass carps do not eat other fish but can still kill them indirectly. The species has a unending appetite for certain vegetation and have the capability to reduce the shorelines of Lake Erie while ignoring problematic plants like the American Lotus, Chapman said. The quantity of vegetation the grass carp consumes also poses risks to the spawning ground of Great Lakes fish. Grass carp can grow as long as 40 inches, weigh as much as 90 pounds and eat 20 to 100 percent of its body weight each day, according to Michigan State University Extension.
The Sandusky River spans 133 miles in Ohio and flows into Lake Erie through the now “high risk” Sandusky Bay. It is the third largest tributary to the western basin of Lake Erie. In addition to the initial 2012 findings, further evidence of fertile grass carp in the Sandusky River was discovered in 2015 when Holly Embke, a graduate student from the University of Toledo, found eight grass carp eggs. The USGS, Great Lakes Fishery Commission, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Ohio Department of Natural Resources all supported the University of Toledo on the grass carp research effort. The discovery led to more intense research conducted on the Sandusky River and the Maumee River, another tributary of Lake Erie.
The threat of grass carp populations entering the Great Lakes hit a peak in summer of 2017, when more than 7,500 eggs of the fish were found in the Sandusky River, prompting an interagency effort to reduce the risk of introduction of diploid grass carp into Lake Erie. Chapman said that was “a tiny percentage” of the total number of eggs in the river.
In September, the Ohio DNR, the USGS and the Great Lakes Fishery Commission released a joint statement outlining the problem and the steps they are taking to correct it. For the most part, the problem-solving effort remains in the research and preventive stage. Since 2014, the interagency effort had been monitoring the Sandusky
River and only recently increased the state of risk on account of more solid and concerning statistics collected this past summer.
“There’s no way the fish can come from anywhere else but the Sandusky (River),” Chapman said. “It’s a tough thing to control and achieve eradication. We are trying to determine where and where not they can survive. Grass carp have a distinct requirement for their eggs to drift because the young have to find a habitat.”
According to a widely-cited January 2017 study, grass carp have been found in three of the five Great Lakes — Michigan, Ontario and Erie — showing the problem is not isolated to a single lake. The peer-reviewed study, titled “Ecological Risk Assessment for Grass Carp in the Great Lakes Basin,” also lists Lake Erie and Lake Michigan at medium risk and concludes “the invasion process has begun,” but ecological consequences might not appear for 20 to 50 years.
The research and strategy stage involves little direct action to eradicate the fish, but the interagency statement outlines an increased effort in 2018 to target and remove the threat before it becomes more difficult to control.
Great Lakes researchers already have a wide range of problems to control from the algae bloom to sea lampreys. But an outbreak of grass carp is among the most dangerous and pressing problems affecting Lake Erie today and, without intervention, would have major consequences on the future size and ecosystem of the lake.
Photo by Vladimir Wrangel/Shutterstock
By Luke Furman
Maple syrup researchers in Appalachia find themselves in a sticky situation when it comes to determining accurate figures of each year’s sugary harvest.
As much as 50 percent of Ohio’s maple syrup is produced by the Amish, and they typically do not submit harvest data to the government, said Les Ober, a program director at Ohio State University Extension and maple syrup specialist.
But in addition to the Amish, many of Ohio’s maple syrup producers do not participate in the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s survey every five years, nor any independent or local inquiries. The only state that requires farmers to submit their crop records to NASS is Wisconsin. In 2017, Wisconsin produced 200,000 gallons of maple syrup, according to NASS.
The lack of data from maple syrup producers makes it difficult for states such as Ohio to fully promote the product. That is far different from Quebec, Canada, which produces roughly 70 percent of the world’s maple syrup. The Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers keeps much closer tabs on producers during the harvesting season, inquiring and estimating 11,200,000 gallons of maple syrup in 2017.
Sara Bouvin, a spokesperson for the Federation, said the organization sends out a survey every week to producers who have agreed to fill it out and send it back. Then, a survey at the end of the season reaches 1,000 producers, who have also agreed to fill it out. The Federation then makes estimates from the data.
“There’s always some resistance,” Bouvin said. “With the surveys, we try to reach the same producers each week. Everyone is interested in knowing how much maple syrup there will be.”
Coupled with the lack of voluntary survey participation, many maple syrup producers in Ohio produce no other agricultural products, so they might not even be included on the USDA’s mailing list.
“Some producers say they never got the survey in the mail, so there’s blame on both sides,” Ober said.
In the past five years, the uncertainty of how many producers and how many trees they tapped have led to unreliable and inconsistent estimates of how many gallons of syrup are produced each year.
In 2013, the USDA estimated that Ohio produced 155,000 gallons of maple syrup. In 2016, it estimated only 70,000 gallons. However, experts suggest the number of trees being tapped each year in Ohio is fairly constant at 400,000. The USDA estimates might not indicate a drop in production, merely a drop in reporting. But those lower figures can reduce the amount of grant funding allotted to Ohio’s maple syrup industry.
Dan Brown, the president of the Ohio Maple Producer Association, points to unaccounted producers for causing volatility in reported production data as opposed to changes in the climate or any other factor. He said that every two years in a decade, a warm winter such as the 2016-2017 season will occur, but that’s nothing new or troublesome to seasoned producers.
“Since maple syrup depends more on weather patterns than global temperature, climate change has not had an effect on it,” Brown said
The traditional method of collecting sap requires producers to drill a hole into a maple tree and insert a spile, or hollow tube, that redirects the flow of sap out of the tree. With a vacuum tubing system, producers can expedite the process and produce 10 times the amount of syrup per acre, according to the University of Vermont. With the vacuum tubing system, warm winters now pose little threat of crop loss to Ohio producers.
“Many producers now use a vacuum tubing system, which allows them to get a good crop no matter what the temperature,” Brown said.
In Ohio, the “Maple Belt” runs from Ashtabula County in the northeast, passes though the east-central part of the state and ends at the southwestern border with Kentucky. Ober said producers harvested at least two-thirds of their sap this past year and some farmers even collected a full season’s worth of sap. But, without better reporting from producers, Ober and other industry experts are limited in how they can help — or promote — Ohio’s maple syrup industry.
Brown views the mystery surrounding how much maple syrup Ohio produces each year as a “negative.” He said that one focus of the OMPA is to promote maple syrup and educate those interested in tapping trees. But when maple syrup producers do not report their annual yields, it becomes difficult for the OMPA to promote the industry.
“We don’t have a real handle on how big our industry is,” Brown said. “Many producers sell by the jug instead of selling in bulk, which is difficult to track. It’s a person-to-person exchange.”
Gary Graham, a researcher at Ohio State University Extension specializing in maple syrup, said if Ohio implemented mandatory record keeping like Wisconsin, then the gallons of maple syrup recorded would be “astronomical.”
“It’s an estimate right now and to require knowing who is out there would be helpful. With price trends, getting accurate marks on any kind of data is hard,” Graham said. “An unregistered producer might have 500 taps or 10,000 taps. Every state should have (Wisconsin’s law).”
A total of 70 out of 88 counties in Ohio produce maple syrup, Graham said. He speculated that many producers fail to submit their harvest because, “they think the IRS will be knocking at their doors for taxes.” However, in reality, a larger statewide crop would, in turn, lead to more funding from the federal government to the industry.
Ohio’s dilemma does not cease just southeast of the Ohio River.
Although West Virginia only recently reemerged as a maple syrup state, prompted by the closing of coal mines and factories, the mountainous terrain and high altitudes present an attractive opportunity for harvesting and profit. Experts compared West Virginia to the climates of Ohio and New York State with as many maple trees as Vermont, the nation’s leading producer of maple syrup.
During the harvesting season from January to April, the sap in maple trees freezes and thaws about 22 to 25 times in a good year. In West Virginia the cooler temperatures found up in the forested hills provide a perfect chance to collect maple syrup.
Mike Rechlin, a member of West Virginia’s Board of Directors of Maple Syrup and author of Maple Syrup: An Introduction to the Science of a Forest Treasure, said West Virginia has about as much of a handle on crop statistics as Ohio.
However, unlike Ohio, West Virginia’s Department of Agriculture has greatly promoted the intrastate maple syrup industry and has led a large push to promote West Virginia as a syrup-producing state.
“The department of agriculture has promoted maple syrup because they want people to be able to use and earn from the land,” Rechlin said. “What else can you do with mountains?”
Much like Dan Brown in Ohio, Mike Rechlin spends time educating Mountaineers on the practice of harvesting syrup from the plentiful maple trees.
“We specifically registered to be part of the NASS survey because we thought that would support the industry through grants from the state,” Rechlin said. “People in West Virginia are interested. There’s a learning curve and we are trying to bring knowledge to the people. West Virginia is land-rich but often poor. Anything we can do to help maple syrup production is good for the state.”
Regardless of state lines — or rivers — the maple syrup industry in Appalachia faces the obstacle of being unorganized and disordered.
Official records of sugaring in the Midwest date back to the first agricultural survey in 1840, when Ohio ranked as the leading producer of maple syrup in the nation of 26 states, according to the Ohio Maple Producers Association.
And although technological advances have reached the rural extremes of American homesteads, some experts like Gary Graham claim it will be “impossible” to ever record an accurate number of gallons produced in any maple syrup state other than Wisconsin.
But, if any change is to occur, the push for concise statistics will most likely come from organizations like the Ohio Maple Producers Association and the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, who reach producers on a personal level and instill a sense of community and the responsibility of bookkeeping.
Graham concluded it would take significant effort by groups like the OMPA to raise awareness to reach the full span of Appalachian producers, who will continue to sugar on or off the record.
Photo illustration by Luke Furman with the help of Emily Matthews