News / USA

Invasive Asian Carp Harm Commercial Fishing Industry

Commerical fisherman Chad Isaak and a partner haul in a boatload of invasive Asian Carp, Jul 2010
Commerical fisherman Chad Isaak and a partner haul in a boatload of invasive Asian Carp, Jul 2010

The multi-billion-dollar commercial fishing industry in the Great Lakes region of the United States employs more than 800,000 people, but is threatened by the invasive Asian Carp - despite continued efforts to keep the fish out of the region's lakes.

Chad Isaak, who has fished the Illinois River for 27 years, says he saw his first Asian carp in 1996, and his life as a commercial fisherman has not been the same since.

"These Asian Carp are the plague," said Isaak.  Isaak does not usually fish for the invasive Asian Carp, which have populated Illinois waterways to the point where they literally jump out of the water.  He seeks catfish and buffalo fish, tastier and more marketable species found in lakes and rivers like the Illinois River.  But more and more Asian Carp are edging out the populations of those native fish species, and keep finding their way into Isaak's nets.

"If you fish for catfish and buffalo, you may throw two to three thousand pounds of Asian Carp back to get the fish that you need," said Isaak.  "And then the quality of the buffalo, they're getting thin and smaller in the rivers."


There's an old saying, "if you can't beat them, join them," and that is just what Isaak is doing to help make ends meet.

On a warm summer day, when he usually would not be fishing - and on a part of the Illinois River where commercial fishing is normally illegal - Isaak and his fellow fisherman are casting their nets to drive the Asian Carp out of the water.

Gary Lutterbie is a fish biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.  He is teamed up with Isaak to track and weigh the amount of fish they are bringing in to help the DNR better understand the scale of the Asian Carp problem.

"Our aspect of the project is to harvest the Asian Carp before they get to the fish barrier to reduce the numbers so there is less chance of any Asian Carp getting past the barrier," said Lutterbie.

This part of the Illinois River near Morris is several miles southwest of the electronic fish barrier, a critical point along the Illinois waterway system meant to stop the Asian Carp from reaching Lake Michigan.

"Every fish we take out there is one less fish to challenge the electric barrier further upstream yet," said Lutterbie.  "We're still trying to feel our way along the river and see where the fish are, and I think we'll end up bringing in more commercial fisherman to increase our harvest of these fish."

The fish they take out of the water here will not be served as food. A fishery in Northwest Illinois has agreed to take in the Asian Carp to process them as fertilizer.

Right now, says Chad Isaak, Asian Carp are not marketable enough to sell as food.

"It's a begging situation where you have to beg them to take your fish," said Isaak.

But those fortunes could soon change. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn recently signed an agreement with China to export 14 million kilograms of Asian Carp per year.

Isaak says there needs to be better infrastructure in place to support the harvest of the invasive species.  "We want it to be like a farmer, when he raises his crop, he can sell it in any town," said Isaak.

Right now there are only two facilities in Illinois where Isaak can take Asian Carp to be processed.  He says increased demand for the fish could solve two problems - getting paid to fish a nuisance out of the river, and returning the populations of native fish to normal levels not seen in several decades.

And with fewer Asian Carp crossing his nets, Isaak hopes normalcy will return to a way of life he has known since the age of ten.

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