Springfield — As anglers embrace spring and prepare for summer fishing, the fear of invasive Asian carp remains a proverbial partner in the boat – especially for anglers who fish the state’s river system and Lake Michigan.
Where does the fight against carp stand?
According to a DNR report released early this year, the practice of contracting with commercial fishermen to prevent Asian carp from approaching the Chicago Area Waterway System and electric barrier system in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal appears to be working, though it’s difficult to say whether it will completely block carp from reaching Lake Michigan.
While commercial fishing crews have reported no Asian carp near Chicago and the electric barrier system at Romeoville, they have developed new methods of catching Asian carp in areas of the upper Illinois River, the DNR report claimed.
A netting operation held on the Illinois River near Ottawa this past December was enough to convince many that the partnership between DNR and commercial crews was a viable operation.
“We continue to find innovative nets and methods to increase our efficiency to protect our Great Lakes by fishing new methods, such as the seine we pulled in Ottawa,” DNR Aquatic Nuisance Species Program Manager Kevin Irons said in a news release. “We have found that fishing in both spring and fall can improve our catches, and in the seining at Ottawa, we fished in a new habitat – a side channel that obviously holds extreme numbers of fish in high concentrations.”
The work along the Illinois is only one effort, but in wake of President Obama’s federal budget plan that put clamps on portions of Asian carp funding, the local project – and projects similar to it – could have greater significance.
The new federal budget did include funds to finish a long-standing third electric barrier near Chicago and to monitor the spread of the fish. But many have been disappointed.
“I will say there is a big hole in the government’s budget for Asian carp,” Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission, said earlier this year. “It’s totally inadequate.”
Meanwhile, closer to home, DNR has worked with hydroacoustics technology supported by Southern Illinois University and fishing crews to find “hot spots” for Asian carp. The idea is to make netting efforts more efficient.
That work began in 2010 near Morris and has expanded within the Marseilles Pool, to the Starved Rock Pool and eventually below Ottawa.
The results? Crews have removed more than 2.7 million pounds of Asian carp. And DNR has not reported an advance of the fish toward Lake Michigan since monitoring the fish near I-55 and the Des Plaines River documented low numbers there in 2006.
“The most recent removal efforts [in December] seem to be aiding our efforts,” said Irons. “At one point, we likely had 500,000 pounds of fish in the net; there were so many fish that the ties started breaking as we were pulling, and several thousands of pounds got out of the net,” Matt O’Hara, DNR Asian carp project leader, said. “The total removal from the seine haul will likely approach 100,000 pounds. It was the most Asian carp I have ever seen wrapped up in a single net, and many of the seasoned commercial fishermen agreed. It was pretty impressive.”
DNR officials noted that, while 54 miles and four dams separate the Ottawa removal effort from Lake Michigan, efforts in locations like these are crucial to control adult populations.
“This removal effort was in a reach of the Illinois River where we don’t have successful reproduction, only immigration from downstream,” Irons said. “Our strategy is to remove fish in this region so that they do not migrate further upstream and challenge the [electronic] barrier.”
As previously mentioned, DNR has worked closely with university researchers to identify how to best integrate commercial fishing and new technologies, such as lures, deterrents and barriers, to help reduce the risk of Asian carp movement.
“The success of the relationship between commercial fishers and biologists, and a lot of hard work during this cold time of the year, is paying off,” Irons explained.
Still, the question remains: Is the fight agains Asian carp being won? Is it being lost?
Or is it a draw?
Following the netting at Ottawa late last year, O’Hara said the answer is not clear.
“It is a very tough question,” he said. “Through a sampling season, you can see where we’re impacting areas. But by the next year, they’ve kind of replenished the area again. I can say that we have significantly fished down the bighead carp since we started [five years ago].”