Md. decries plan to use carp in Pa. Officials fear fish will ravage bay

April 27, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

Pennsylvania officials yesterday approved the use of a voracious, plant-eating fish called the grass carp to control vegetation in small lakes and ponds, a move Maryland experts say could dramatically harm the Chesapeake Bay.

"I'm extremely disappointed. It seems almost inevitable that carp will escape from Pennsylvania into the bay," said Robert Lunsford, director of Maryland's Freshwater Fisheries Division, which has been lobbying the commission to reject the proposal to allow grass carp use.

Pennsylvania's 10-member Boat and Fish Commission decided to restrict use of the grass carp to impounded water bodies of 5 acres or less and to begin licensing use of the fish Jan. 1, a year earlier than planned.

The commission estimates a 5-acre pond would need between eight and 10 fish to control aquatic growth.

Under the new regulation, owners of larger bodies of water can seek exemptions by filing a report from a certified biologist showing why the fish would better control vegetation than herbicides or harvesting.

Maryland officials have opposed the use of the grass carp in Pennsylvania, fearing escapes of the fish would destroy critical habitats in the estuary and harm the state's sportfishing industry.

"The fact that the fish will be restricted to smaller water bodies really doesn't allay our fears about an escape into the bay," Mr. Lunsford said.

"A large portion of small ponds flood all the time in heavy rains and storms. Fish survive catastrophic events like flooding and wind up in another water body. We routinely find fish up around the Susquehanna Flats that we believe originate out of Pennsylvania."

J. Wayne Yorks, president of Pennsylvania's Boat and Fish Commission, said that restricting the fish to small bodies of water would ensure against an accidental release into the bay if flooding occurs.

He said a majority of other commission members also were not convinced that an accidental carp release would harm the bay's ecology.

"Everything I read and heard about this fish told me it just wouldn't have the impact on the bay the Maryland people are afraid of," said Mr. Yorks, one of the seven commissioners voting to approve the proposal.

One member voted against it and two members were not present, he said.

Mr. Yorks said Pennsylvania is only permitting the use of sterile grass carp, a native of the Amur River on the China-Russia border. The fish can grow to 35 pounds, and fish experts say it eats its own body weight in vegetation daily.

Pennsylvania plans to set up an inspection system to ensure that grass carp vendors are selling only sterile fish.

"I personally know of at least three ponds already stocked witthese fish. We figured people were going to get and use these fish regardless so we are better off setting up a system to regulate what's sold and used," Mr. Yorks said.

But Mr. Lunsford and Torrey C. Brown, secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, question the method used to determine whether grass carp are sterile. They say the method is not fail-safe.

Dr. Brown is concerned that a community of escaped fertile grass carp would destroy the bay's underwater grasses and other plants, already under heavy assault from pollution. The plants provide food and shelter for most fish.

"A self-sustaining population of grass carp would undoubtedly eradicate most, if not all of, the submersed aquatic vegetation in the Lower Susquehanna River, Susquehanna Flats, the tidal freshwater portions of the Potomac River, and other tidal freshwater tributaries of the bay," Dr. Brown wrote in a letter to the Pennsylvania commission.

Mr. Lunsford said yesterday that he is annoyed the Pennsylvania commission decided to begin issuing licenses in January, rather than waiting until 1995, because the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is planning an in-depth study of the grass carp.

"We were hoping to have enough time to complete the study before the proposal took effect," he said.

The Pennsylvania golf and farming industries have been the main supporters of the proposal, arguing it could save them money on expensive chemicals now used to control aquatic growth.

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