U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio), who co-chairs the Senate Great Lakes Task Force with U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), was greeted by three unexpected visitors during his hour-long stop at the University of Toledo's Lake Erie Center earlier this week: Asian carp.
Waiting for him in a back laboratory were the frozen carcasses of three of the four types - grass carp, silver carp and the biggest fella of them all, bighead carp.
The only type of Asian carp missing from that group was black carp, which are probably the least understood.
Black carp and grass carp have been are gaining attention lately, though, because of their presence in the Illinois and Sandusky rivers. The Sandusky flows into western Lake Erie.
Grass carp were confirmed in the Sandusky in late 2012, when six of that species were caught. Scientists from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and other agencies aren't sure how they got there. They are believed to be the first Asian carp species to be spawned in the Great Lakes or its tributaries.
UT algae researcher Tom Bridgeman, left, holding the frozen carcass of a bighead Asian carp for U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio). THE BLADE/TOM HENRY
The two most dreaded species are the silver Asian carp and the bighead Asian carp.
The silver carp are the ones so sensitive to the vibrations of boat motors they flop high out of water and literally become fleshy projectiles capable of injuring fishermen.
The bigheads, which can grow to be 100 pounds, are aquatic vacuum cleaners, such proficient eaters they destroy most of the food for native fish wherever they go.
Tom Bridgeman, a UT environmental sciences associate professor who specializes in western Lake Erie algae research, held up the bighead carp so Portman could get face-to-face with it.
"I'm not touching that thing," Portman said with a chuckle.
Portman said he and other senators are working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on an eventual solution to the most probably entry point for the silvers and bigheads, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which dumps into Lake Michigan near Chicago.
Portman outside UT's Lake Erie Center. THE BLADE/TOM HENRY
The canal is part of a man-made series of waterways that has artificially linked the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds together for decades. Scientists have said a complete separation is the best way to avoid an invasion, but the government has balked at the $18.4 billion price tag. At risk is a Great Lakes fishery worth $7 billion a year.
Every study shows "more and more evidence" of the silver and bighead Asian carp getting closer, Portman said.
Christine Mayer, a UT ecology professor who specializes in invasive species, said the specimens shown at the lab were pulled from the Illinois River on April 13. They were gutted and frozen so they could be shipped to the lab in time for Portman's visit, she said.
Portman spent time talking with her and Bridgeman about Lake Erie issues, and hearing about some other issues from Oregon City Administrator Mike Beazley.
UT's Christine Mayer, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) and UT's Tom Bridgeman discuss Great Lakes issues at UT's Lake Erie Center. THE BLADE/TOM HENRY
Oregon City Administrator Mike Beazley, left, and U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio). THE BLADE/TOM HENRY