It’s been four years since the discovery of an Asian carp between the electric barriers and Lake Michigan. That’s when the state went into emergency mode. They hired a select group of Illinois commercial fishermen. And as our Nancy Loo reports, they’ve now taken two-and-a-half MILLION pounds of Asian carp out of Illinois waterways.
In the backwaters of the Illinois River near Starved Rock State Park, there are fewer Asian carp jumping this year. “We’re doing this kinda different today,” says lifelong angler Chad Isaak. “So we’ll see. I’m kinda excited to see how it works.” It’s in large part because of these guys who’ve been fishing their entire lives. “We’re gonna load the boat. That’s what we wanna do.”
Isaak is among ten commercial fishermen contracted by the Department of Natural Resources to harvest Asian carp in this area. “I mean all down the river from here south it’s just, it’s a major problem. This is definitely part of the answer. You got to catch ‘em to get rid of ‘em.”
This day, state experts want fishermen to focus east of Starved Rock, the current leading edge of Asian carp, down river of the electric barriers near Romeoville. DNR views I-55 as the line in the sand, as they work to keep the heaviest concentrations of Asian carp to the South. Commercial fishing is not allowed between Starved Rock and Chicago. But the state makes an exception for this team. “You take 2.5 million more pounds of fish, that’d be more of a chance of them getting through the barrier,” says fisherman Gary Shaw.
“That increases the odds a lot.” Kevin Irons is the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Asian carp expert. “They are the pivotal cog. They’ve got the crews, they’ve got the gear. But, most importantly, they’ve got the knowledge and expertist. They know how to catch em. And then the river goes up or down, they know how to shift tactics.” The fishermen’s days start early. Each crew is accompanied by a state biologist who documents everything caught. On this day, efforts are focused near Ottawa and Morris.
Nancy asks Chad Isaak, “So why did you pick this spot today? “Well, the fish been concentrated on this bank right here along the edge.” “Based on the jumpin’, if they take the net, we’re gonna have a good day.” Deckhand Travis Jondro sets the nets with the help of biologist Dave Wyffels. And then it’s much like a cattle round up with the guys making some noise. All that pounding and revving of engines drives the fish away from the safety of the shoreline and into the nets. Some of them even jump right in the boats. 65 silver carp jumped right into one of our boats. Fisherman jokingly call them, “The Volunteers.” While they may not look that big while they’re out there jumping, some are actually quite large. This is about 7 pounds. Some are up to 80 pounds. Although Chad Isaak once pulled in a 90 pounder down near St. Louis. “Got a big one.”
This day’s haul is mainly big head carp. The silver carp are the jumpers and have inflicted pain and suffering on many like Gary Shaw. “I was actually seeing stars. I mean had to stop and sit there a little bit and come out of it, it hit me so hard on the back of the head.” Native species are no match for the carp’s voracious appetite and high rate of reproduction.
“We had 61 in 400 yards of big head and we had 8 silver carp.” Tracking what’s caught gives the state a clear picture of the ongoing threat and the effect on native species. Between the five boats, they net about 15,000 pounds for the day, about half as much than “the good old days.” The daily catches are getting smaller, and that’s a good thing. The harvests are delivered and donated to Schaefer Fisheries, for production of liquid fertilizer. Again, biologist Dave Wyffels. “It’s the best tool that we have right now to fight the situation that we’re in. Removing these fish, it just decreases that pressure we have on lake Michigan.”
Fisherman Gary Shaw is proud of the job they’re doing. “I think it’s gonna have to continue or they will eventually get in the lake. I don’t think there’s any way of stopping ‘em other than what we’re doing. Everything else they tried hasn’t worked. What we’re doing is the only thing that’s giving results.” Chad Isaak says anyday fishing is a good day. “We enjoy catching fish no matter what kind. I know I’m doing a good thing.” On the Illinois river near Ottawa, Nancy Loo, WGN News.
Department of Natural Resources tell us there’s been unprecedented cooperation among many government agencies to tackle the Asian carp problem. And many states are turning to Illinois for answers. We’ve compiled a long list of resources at wgntv.com if you’d like more information and you can share this story from our website as well.
Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalist Steve Scheuer contributed to this report.
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