Illinois hunting and fishing

Competitors in the annual Redneck Fishing Tournament at Bath fill a pickup truck with Asian Carp. Photo by Chris Young.

Rockford editorial: Efforts to combat Asian carp are working

November 02, 2011 at 10:23 AM

Commercial fishermen who work for Schafer Fisheries are using smaller nets to catch Asian carp on the Illinois River.

“The big fish just aren’t there anymore,” said Steve McNitt, a buyer for Schafer.

That’s a good indication that Illinois’ efforts to slow the spread of this invasive species are paying off.

Asian carp, a family of fish that includes bighead carp, silver carp, grass carp and black carp, were imported from China in the 1970s by catfish farmers in the South to control algae and snails in their ponds.

The fish were washed out of those farms and into the Mississippi River during floods in the 1990s. From the Mississippi they’ve made their way into the Illinois, Missouri and other rivers.

They make up as much as 70 percent of the fish population in the Illinois River and are the most abundant fish larger than 5 pounds in the lower Missouri River.

Their voracious appetites limit food supplies for other fish and wind up driving out native species.

McNitt has seen that in the Illinois River. He said the number of smallmouth buffalo has decreased.

Those fish compete with Asian carp for food, as do shad, which are practically gone.

Catfish, however, are doing well because they feed on small Asian carp, McNitt said.

Because Asian carp are such prolific breeders and eaters — they consume about 40 percent of their body weight in plankton in a day — there is great concern that these fish will invade the Great Lakes and devastate a $7 billion fishing industry.

Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have sued to permanently close the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal that connects the Illinois River to Lake Michigan so the fish stay out of the Great Lakes. The states have taken their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

While the courtroom battles play out, the water war is working.

McNitt said his company removed 20 million pounds of fish from the river last year. That’s a lot of fish and may explain why there are virtually no fish north of the Brandon Road Lock and Dam in Joliet.

No fish have been found, either, above two electronic barriers about 25 miles from Lake Michigan. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources monitors that area regularly for signs of Asian carp. Although carp DNA has been found above the barrier through water sampling, no fish have.

However, vigilance is key. Asian carp DNA recently was found in a stretch of the Mississippi River near Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. Asian carp are a real threat to the ecosystem of Illinois and the other 26 states they’ve been found in.

Illinois’ multipronged attack against Asian carp looks to create new markets, so that there’s more of an interest in harvesting the fish.

The fish have been processed as fertilizer, and there is a campaign to accept Asian carp as table fare.

In September, carp as cuisine was quite the talk. Chef Phillipe Parola of Baton Rouge cooked up carp in Chicago to feed 350 homeless people.

It was a promotion to show just how tasty the fish could be. It might be awhile before you see “silverfin” on a restaurant menu near you, but lobster was once considered suitable only for prisoners and servants, so it’s not inconceivable that Asian carp could one day be a delicacy here.

Asian carp will be here for a long time, but Illinois’ approach has helped control the spread of the fish.