Water skiing. Summer on the blue water off Okoboji, Iowa.
You're skipping along the waves, behind a motorboat, your significant other watching from the passenger seat, smiling.
Then, slap! A fish jumps out of the lake and hits you in the face, knocking you off your skis.
That's the scenario state wildlife officials, business owners and residents are trying to avoid at one of Iowa's most valuable recreation destinations.
They are working together to install a roughly $700,000 electric fish barrier in the outlet area of Lower Gar Lake at Milford, Iowa. Their aim: to keep invasive, non-native Asian carp from swimming up from the Little Sioux River into Milford Creek and Iowa's Great Lakes, where about a million people travel yearly to boat, swim and ski.
If the fish make it to the lakes in significant numbers, they could threaten the glacier-carved lakes' ecosystems. They also might en- danger Dickinson County's $213 million-a-year tourism industry, Iowa's ninth-largest in terms of travel spending, based on 2010 state tourism statistics.
While experts say that last year's historic Missouri River flooding is what brought the carp to the lakes and that large numbers of the fish are unlikely to migrate this far again without a similar flood, people are worried.
"We should have done this electric fish barrier five years ago," said Phil Petersen, executive director of the Iowa Great Lakes Association.
"But we didn't have the gun to our head that we do now."
One breed of Asian carp, silver carp, jump out of the water when startled by something like the roar of a motorboat engine.
"You can just imagine if these silver carp show up, and people are out boating or they are afraid to go out boating because these silver carp are jumping out of the water," Petersen said. "They are going to say, 'Why didn't somebody do something?'"
Asian carp do much more than just encourage boaters to make YouTube videos of passengers ducking fish fly-bys.
"There have been many injuries, sometimes just ... bumps and bruises, but, there have been broken jaws, broken collar bones, Jet Skiers being knocked down," said Kim Bogenschutz, aquatic and invasive species program coordinator for Iowa's Department of Natural Resources.
Small numbers of another breed of Asian carp — bighead carp — were found last year in East Okoboji Lake. But Mike Hawkins, a fisheries management biologist for the Iowa DNR, said silver carp could have made it into the lakes as well.
"There is a high probability both those made it in," Hawkins said. "We don't know the level of infestation at this point. They are a very tough creature to sample. They avoid nets."
For a variety of reasons though, he says the likelihood of large numbers of carp shooting from the lake waters is low.
"And that's where we'd like to keep it," he said. "But that's a real fear. And that's really driving the process here."
Aquaculture farmers in the American South imported silver and bighead carp from Asia in the 1970s to control algae and plankton on fish farms.
By the early 1990s, the carp had made their way into the wild.
They flourished, spreading to much of the Mississippi River drainage, including the Missouri, Ohio and Illinois Rivers and their tributaries.
The fish grow quickly — 9 to 12 inches per year — and reach more than 50 pounds. Scientists say Asian carp may be the most abundant large fish in the lower Missouri.
Both bighead and silver carp can threaten native fish because they feed on plankton some native species need, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
At the Iowa Great Lakes, there had been discussions about something to keep the carp out, but nothing had been done, Petersen said. Residents had no reason to believe the fish were close to Okoboji or Spirit Lake.
Then came the Missouri River flood of 2011.
"High water triggers their movements," Bogenschutz said. "That's when they want to spawn, in the spring and summer. And high water due to flooding events or a natural spring rise, that's what triggers them to go upstream and start to spawn."
"They move as far as they can, until something stops them."
This fall, in addition to bighead carp found in East Okoboji Lake, silver carp were found in nearby Elk Lake and Lost Island Lake, both near to but separate from the Iowa Great Lakes.
Bighead also were found in Elk Lake.
How much of a threat the Asian carp present the lakes is not yet known. Wildlife experts say they don't think the fish can reproduce in lakes, and Bogenschutz said she expects no more migration without major flooding.
"There is a lot to be learned about these things," she said. "They haven't been in our systems long enough to answer all our questions, and there are a lot of questions that need to be answered."
The DNR also is concerned about zebra mussels getting into the Iowa Great Lakes, with signs posted at ramps telling boaters to wash their boats, Bogenschutz said. No evidence of the mussels has been found in those lakes.
Local residents started looking into Asian carp after the bighead carp were found in August, said Petersen. Google searches turned up videos of carp flying out of the water. A photocopy of a Chicago Magazine article about Asian carp in the Illinois River, where the problem is profound, made the local rounds.
Research was done. A physical barrier to keep out the fish was deemed unfeasible. An electric barrier seemed the only option.
The exact costs are not yet known — plans are to spend $500,000 to $700,000.
"They are very expensive, Hawkins said. "It's a specialty device."
Such barriers work by embedding a line of electrodes in concrete on the floor of the waterway. The barriers use very low voltage, but enough to deter fish from crossing — though it should have no tangible effect on recreational fishing.
"A lot of folks kind of cringe on electricity in water, but these are safe, relatively," Hawkins said.
Petersen is spearheading a private fundraising effort and hopes to raise half the money to build the barrier. He hopes the state will then kick in the rest.
"They really want to know you have put your own money in," he said. "That is an indication that this is serious, not just some wishful thinking."
In a week of fundraising, the "Jumping Fish Fundraising Committee" has already banked more than $10,000, Petersen said.
He described it as an investment. Lakeshore real estate has an assessed value of $2 billion. If silver carp lowered values even 10 percent, that would cost property owners and taxing districts on the order of $200 million.
"Seven hundred thousand," he said, "seems like a bargain."
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