Invasive carp project funded as UMN changes directors
Pioneer Press, 5/16/2014
Minnesota's carp-fighting point man has been busy lately.
In the past few weeks, University of Minnesota professor Peter Sorensen has plotted a plan to stymie invasive carp advancing up the Mississippi River, lobbied state lawmakers for millions of dollars to fund the university's Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center that he founded -- and been removed as director of the center.
The U said the decision to replace Sorensen was intended to allow him to focus on research and was not disciplinary. He remains a tenured professor and a key researcher at the center, but he loses a 10 percent salary bump customary with U directorship duties.
"It's a monumental effort to start a center and get all these things rolling, as well as getting all this research going," said professor Sue Galatowitsch, who took over as the center's director May 8.
"It became obvious to all of us who work with him that it wasn't possible for him to do both, and Asian carp are an immediate threat."
Galatowitsch, a longtime colleague of Sorenson and who said she chose to direct the salary increase toward research, also heads the U's fisheries wildlife and conservation biology department.
The change was announced in a memo by Brian Buhr, interim dean of the U's College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. Buhr praised Sorensen for his "tremendous contributions" and said his work will continue under Galatowitsch.
The timing of the change wasn't entirely unrelated to Sorensen's other recent activities, which included a plea for funding for the underwater speakers last month, an unorthodox move for a U professor who has been seen as the darling of many legislators for his ability to garner funding.
"It wasn't a time of convenience," said Galatowitsch. "But the temperatures on the Mississippi are rising, and those carp will be spawning soon. Peter needs to get out there."
The leadership change was made as the U has approved Sorensen to spend $75,000 in state funds and private donations to install underwater carp-diversion sound system south on the river on the border of southeastern Minnesota.
And early Friday, the Legislature approved $8.7 million for university research lab improvements that will renovate the aging building where Sorensen in 2012 founded the AIS lab, where he and a team of researchers studied such unwanted invaders as zebra mussels and bighead and silver carp in attempts to find their weaknesses.
Over the winter, federal researchers confirmed the farthest-upstream discovery of fertilized eggs of bighead or silver carp, near Lynxville, Wis., downstream of Lock and Dam No.8 near Genoa, Wis.
Sorensen's plan is to install five underwater speakers below the lock. The speakers will transmit a sound similar to the drone of an outboard motor that is especially unpleasant to carp -- a vulnerability Sorensen and his team discovered.
The team also discovered that the carp, despite silver carp being known for their leaping ability, aren't strong swimmers. The transducers are expected to keep the carp away from the shipping lock, while minor procedural changes in the dam structure could keep flows too fast for the fish to surmount the dam.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which runs the lock-and-dam network along the Mississippi, has all but signed off on the plan.
Native to Asia, the carp are voracious feeders of plankton, and in many American waters where they have established themselves, they've upended the food chain and pushed out native fish.
In Minnesota, they are seen as a major threat to the state's waters and fish.
Locks and dams provide potential barriers to the fish, which spawn in the summer by swimming upstream. Sorensen, who could not be reached for comment Friday, has said the spawning run is the time when carp would be likely to breach a lock and dam, and swimming into the lock while upstream-bound ships are being raised over the 9-foot elevation difference would be a prime opportunity.
Earlier this week, members of Minnesota's congressional delegation announced the likely closure within a year of the shipping lock at Upper St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis to guard against the carp.
The lock is seen as a serious barrier to carp. But its closure does nothing to protect the Mississippi's downstream tributaries, which include the Minnesota and St. Croix rivers. Keeping the carp below Lock and Dam 8 would protect the bulk of the state.