Boating down the Wabash River near Lafayette on July 16, I witnessed firsthand the broad, winding river’s scenic beauty, but I also got a lesson in the environmental challenges the river faces when two Asian carp hurled themselves out of the water and landed in our boat.
The Wabash is Indiana’s iconic river and inspiration for our state song, yet in recent years two species of invasive Asian carp have infested portions of it. These voracious, non-native fish consume nutrients in the water, disrupting the food chain and threatening the native fish enjoyed by Hoosier anglers and sportsmen. At the sound of outboard motors, groups of Asian carp will jump out of the water and can injure boaters.
The invasion of Asian carp into U.S. waterways and the risk they pose to the Great Lakes sportfishing industry have provoked consternation and litigation among our neighboring states; and as Indiana’s attorney general, I want to make sure the Wabash will be protected from further spread of this aquatic nuisance.
Fortunately we have allies in this effort. First is John Goss, director of the federal government’s Asian carp control efforts. John is a native Hoosier and former director of the Department of Natural Resources, and he accompanied me in a friend’s Zodiac inflatable boat during part of our river tour and inspection down the Wabash. Goss educated me and people we met in river communities along the way about new approaches being explored to curb the carp population.
In communities along the Wabash, local residents have banded together to preserve the river. In the city of Wabash, where we launched our boat, we met with Mayor Robert Vanlandingham and some of the Wabash River Defenders, a group of volunteers who sponsor clean-up programs on the banks of the river and advocate for increased use and appreciation of the waterway.
Downriver in Peru, we met with Mayor Jim Walker and members of the Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission, who support programs that celebrate the natural resource of the river. In Lafayette, we met with Purdue University Professor Reuben Goforth, a renowned expert on invasive species, and we learned about innovative ideas for addressing Asian carp overpopulation. In Terre Haute, Mayor Duke Bennett and citizens are celebrating 2013 as “The Year of the River” to showcase the waterway with activities to encourage its full use and enjoyment.
Slicing through the river along the Indiana-Illinois border on my friend John Hughes’ Zodiac boat, I spotted five bald eagles and 40 or more blue herons, a testament to the wooded natural ecosystem on the banks of the Wabash. A spectacular view of the river awaited us atop the bluff at Merom in Sullivan County, where we had lunch at the Downtown Diner with local folks who exuded Hoosier hospitality. Longtime residents told me that in some areas, the river has never looked cleaner, but in others, they worry about agricultural runoff into the waterway.
The Wabash’s connection to the early development of our state is seen in the city of Vincennes, Indiana’s first territorial capital before statehood. There we toured the riverfront and George Rogers Clark Memorial with Mayor Joe Yochum. The final leg of our four-day river journey took us to New Harmony in Posey County, site of 19th-century utopian communities and still a peaceful hometown for residents who met us at the Red Geranium restaurant to share their love of the river and discuss Asian carp.
After observing by boat most of a 334-mile stretch of the Wabash before its confluence with the Ohio River, I came away with a new appreciation for maintaining the river’s ecosystem, water quality and heritage, a deeper admiration for those volunteers whose stewardship helps keep the river free of litter and pollution, and a determination to do what I can to help our state control Asian carp.
We in Indiana truly are blessed that such a scenic natural waterway flows through our state, and I encourage all Hoosiers to visit the Wabash by boat, canoe or from the riverbank so they can appreciate why we must protect and preserve it.
Greg Zoeller is the Indiana attorney general. He toured the Wabash River by boat from July 15 to 18.