The battle line stretches along 40 miles of the Illinois River, from the Starved Rock Lock and Dam upstream past Morris to within 10 miles of an electric carp barrier.
This is the front in the state’s fight against Asian carp. Over 2½ years the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and state-contracted commercial fishermen have removed more than 500 tons of bighead and silver Asian carp from the Illinois River. In 68 days last fall, the DNR and fishermen netted and removed 248 tons, according to the DNR.
The zone lies within an area closed to commercial fishing; no commercial fishing is allowed upstream of Route 89 at Spring Valley. But in the fight against carp, exceptions are made.
“The commercial guys, they’re a wonderful asset,” said Dan Sallee, DNR fisheries biologist.
The state carp removal is concentrated on the leading edge of carps’ range to prevent them from expanding and moving east into Lake Michigan.
“We have added additional work days in December and we’re also going to work a week in January and a week in February this year,” Sallee said. “We know these fish bunch up in cold water. We’re hoping we can get on them in real cold temps and really whack them.”
Sallee said progress is difficult to measure in the drought, which began to develop in fall 2011 and is still present. Water level fluctuations boost fish spawning and keep fish moving, making them more prone to netting. The drought could explain lower fish catches, Sallee speculated.
“The river has been so low this (past) summer and conditions have been so stable that it’s hard to address what’s happening right now,” Sallee said. “Our catches are down in the Morris area and that could be interpreted as a good sign. Unfortunately, these fish tend to move in response to water level changes and maybe they’re just not moving around because conditions are so stable.”
The state carp crews typically spend a day above the Dresden Lock and Dam and two days in the Morris area. Last fall they concentrated in some sand mining pits, closed to the public, Sallee said.
This year, several key upper reaches gave up no carp, certainly a positive sign unless it’s just drought-related, Sallee said. From Brandon to Dresden they caught few, less than 100, Sallee estimated. Below Dresden, catches picked up, he said.
The squadron of five boats, including two commercial fishing boats, unloads netted fish into a refrigerated truck which takes the carp to a fertilizer processing plant, Sallee said.
The DNR also is pushing carp as a local food source. Last summer the DNR brought carp to the Taste of Chicago food celebration. The DNR also uses Asian carp in its Target Hunger Now program, which also uses deer, to be processed distributed to food banks and charitable organizations.
“There’s a very active program to increase those markets,” Sallee said. “Entrepreneurs are looking at it.”
The effort is part of an Asian Carp Control Strategy Framework issued by the Obama Administration in May 2010. The Illinois DNR has worked with other agencies in monitoring and sampling carp on the Chicago Area Waterway System, the name given the urbanized, upstream streams and canals that feed the Illinois River.
Bighead and silver carp filter plankton and, like many non-native species, could disrupt the native food chain. Just four decades ago Americans were working to bring them here. Asian carp were imported in the 1970s from Southeast Asia to the southern United States to clean fish farm and sewage ponds. They escaped ponds during floods. Asian carp were first detected in Illinois in 1986-87. They showed up on the Illinois River in the La Salle-Peru area in 1998-99, according to U.S. Geological Survey.
If the carp ever make it to Lake Michigan they would join at least 25 other non-native fish including the round goby, sea lamprey and alewife that have entered the lake since the 1800s, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. None have gained the political traction of Asian carp. In December a federal judge threw out a lawsuit filed by five states to erect barriers in the Chicago-area to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.
Although numbers vary, current research estimates there are approximately 50,000 non-native species in the United States, and about 4,300 are considered invasive, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Jeff Dankert can be reached at (815) 220-6977 or firstname.lastname@example.org.