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Invasive species: Asian carp serve as visible icon

May 03, 2013 at 07:35 PM


If there ever was an icon for invasive species, it is Asian carp.

Not only do they reproduce and grow exponentially, they leap up to eight feet out of the water in a spectacle that is almost beyond belief.

If we were able to weigh all the fish in the Illinois River today, more than half of the fish by weight would be Asian silver and bighead carp.

To stay on top of efforts to keep the invaders from spreading from the Illinois River system into the Great Lakes, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has developed an aquatic nuisance team of six biologists.

They work with other agencies to monitor and respond to any reports of the fish near electric barriers designed to keep them in check.

“We work closely with other agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” said Kevin Irons, aquatic nuisance species program manager. “We actually have more work than any one agency can do.”

The Corps is in charge of three barriers put in place to keep Asian carp out of Lake Michigan.

“All of the barriers are functioning, and two are always on,” Irons said.

The good news, Irons said, is that Asian carp are rarely found in the northern reaches near the barrier.

So far, only one confirmed fish, found when the Chicago and Sanitary Ship Canal that bridges the Illinois River and Lake Michigan was treated to kill all fish in 2009, is known.

Irons said biologists are using nets, electro-fishing and contracting with commercial fishermen in an attempt to find any Asian carp near the barrier.

There is a concern that sport fish numbers could drop over time, and there is the ever-present danger of large Asian carp jumping into boats and injuring boaters.

And Irons said he is hopeful commercial fishing can reduce the number of large fish, and thus take the pressure off native fish.

“The rest of the world has over-fished them,” he said. “We have to remove them in large numbers using our existing commercial fishery. I don’t think our sport fishermen fully appreciate our commercial operation.”

The city of Grafton received a $1.9 million state grant last year to build an Asian carp processing plant.

Big River Fish in Pearl buys and processes bighead carp for export.

Contact Chris Young at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or follow him at: twitter.com/ChrisYoungPSO.

“We are using the commercial fishermen who have the most experience catching fish, and the best gear,” he said. “We’re just not catching them.”

Irons said the risk of fish passing is “extremely low.”

Downstream, biologists are concerned about Asian carp pushing out native fish species such as largemouth bass.

“It certainly is a concern when a majority of your biomass is invasive species,” Irons said. “Still, we don’t see other species falling off the radar.”

Irons said studies by the Illinois Natural History Survey show shad — an important forage fish — getting skinnier, perhaps because of competition with Asian carp for plankton.

Studies also show larger zooplankton missing from the river, he said.

But gloom and doom scenarios haven’t come true so far.

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