Asian carp pose conundrum for lawmakers
How do you control an animal that has no natural predators, seems to multiply uncontrollably and has bad effects on the ecosystem?
“That’s the million dollar question” and the conundrum caused by Asian carp, according to Rob Maher, commercial fishing program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources
Two Illinois lawmakers think they have a hint. Reps. Patricia Bellock and Jim Watson want to repel the aquatic invaders, but they have come up with opposite solutions.
Bellock, a Hinsdale Republican, wants to ban the buying and selling of Asian carp, effectively ending commercial harvesting of the fish.
Watson, on the other hand, wants to give DNR up to $3 million to examine the merits of mass commercial harvesting of Asian carp.
“I do not proclaim to be a fish biologist or an expert,” said Watson, a Jacksonville Republican. “I’m trying to get something out there so that we can have this discussion and find out what can we do.”
Bellock and Watson previously have addressed the assault of bighead and silver carp on Illinois' ecosystem. Those are the two main species people are referring to when they use the term "Asian carp."
Originally brought to the United States to eat vegetation in fish farms, Asian carp escaped sometime in the early 1970s and have systematically worked their way up the Mississippi River basin.
“We’ve been monitoring silver carp and since 1998, their population has doubled almost annually,” said Greg Sass, field station director and large river ecologist for the Illinois Natural History Survey.
There is no sign the fish’s population growth will slow down anytime soon. Watson and Bellock hope to change that, though their approaches differ.
“The experts have advocated what I have in my legislation (a ban on the sale of Asian carp),” Bellock said. “I think they have seen that all the other things done have not worked.”
It seems, however, that most people involved with Asian carp want to see if commercial harvesting on a massive scale would reduce the fish’s population.
“Fishing them is probably one of the very few solutions,” Maher said.
Population control has fallen on fishermen because humans are the only predator of the fish in the United States. But commercial fishermen have been reluctant to harvest Asian carp because of there’s not much of a market for them.
“Without a market to sell these fish, there is no motivation to harvest them,” Maher said.
Currently, most caught Asian carp are either shipped overseas or to ethnic communities in the United States.
Steve Shults blames the widespread rejection of the fish on a stigma attached to the name "carp."
The carp most people know is a natural garbage disposal, feeding on anything that falls to the bottom of the river, giving it a taste most don’t enjoy.
This isn’t the case with silver and bighead carp, its proponents insist. They say Asian carp’s meat is light, something like cod.
“I’ve had them smoked and bighead fried and liked them both,” said Shults, DNR’s aquatic nuisance species program manager.
As more people are educated about differences in the carp, the market seems to be growing.Mike Shafer, owner of Shafer Fishery, one of the two fisheries in Illinois that currently process Asian carp, predicts his sales of Asian carp will more than double from 4 million pounds in 2008 to 10 million this year.
“We are doing a lot with fertilizer now too,” Shafer said. “Everything but the fillet is used (in fertilizer).”
However, Shafer Fishery and Big River Fish, the other fishery that currently processes Asian carp, aren’t big enough to make a dent in the fish’s population.
“Those two particular businesses have been doing that activity for many years,” Shults said. Asian carp’s “reproduction has far outstripped the production of those two businesses.”
Despite this, some see a cause for optimism.
The commercial fishing industry for Asian carp “is a lot further along that it was five years ago,” Maher said.
Watson acknowledges that, when the state deficit could be larger than $9 billion, convincing the General Assembly to fund a giant fishing program could be difficult.
However, with Pat Quinn in the governor’s office, Watson thinks his legislation stands a better chance of passing than it did in the past.
“The previous administration just said no and did not come up with any alternatives,” Watson said. “(DNR Director) Marc Miller and the governor’s office have all been responsive.”
Andrew Thomason can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
Odd tactics abound when it comes to hunting carp
Hockey helmets, and bows and arrows aren’t usually associated with fishing. But anglers have resorted to exotic equipment to tangle with Asian carp.
Asian carp, which have gained infamy for their aerobatics, are an invasive species of fish that have begun to clog the Mississippi River basin.
Duane Chapman knows all about silver and bighead carp, commonly known as Asian carp. In addition to being a research fisheries biologist for the United States Geological Survey, Chapman is also an avid fisherman.
Chapman said there are a number of ways to catch Asian carp, which taste much better than the common carp most people know.
For a traditionalist, a rod and reel can be used to catch these aquatic invaders.
“The typical European method for fishing for silver carp involves a large dough ball and has a number of small hooks that hang in a nest around it,” Chapman said.
But if you don’t want to spend the time setting up a rig, Chapman has some good news.
“The easiest way to get a large number of silver carp in the boat is to just drive around and grab then out of the air with landing nets,” Chapman said.
But Chapman warns: “It can be dangerous.” That's why he suggests headgear.
Bowfishing is another unorthodox method of taking Asian carp.
“Bowfishing can be extremely productive,” Chapman said. “(Bowfishers) use fiberglass arrows that have a fish barb on them and the arrow is attached to a string and then on the bow you use either a spinning reel or a retriever.”
When the fish break the water, the angler lets the arrows fly.
Female silver carp provide the best meat, Chapman said.
“I don’t even clean the males,” he said, adding that there are so many Asian carp out there, no one should feel bad about wasting the males.