The state of Illinois’ response to the Asian carp threat has involved everything from electric barriers in rivers, to removal by commercial fishermen, to investments in creating new markets for this invasive species. And it’s all working. But, as WGN’s Nancy Loo learned on a recent fishing trip on the Illinois River, Asian carp are more abundant in Havana, than any place else on Earth.
“This is Ground Zero. Ya, we’re here.” For more than two decades, state experts have been tracking Asian carp numbers in the waters arouind Havana. Kevin Irons is the Asian carp program director for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “We’re 200 miles from Lake Michigan and about 120 miles up from the Mississippi. You find more carp per acre, per mile of river than nearly anyplace else in the world.” Havana is fish heaven. The water here is loaded with food due to farm runoff. Throughout the year, teams from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources use a specially equipped shock boat to keep close tabs on the Asian carp population. You might describe what happens as “shock and awe.” “It’s shocking the fish, so we can get a real quick snapshot of what the fish community is.”
Right now, the community is about 60% Asian carp. Irons says native species have thinned out. “There’s not enough food to go around.” Nancy asks Kevin, “Would you say this population is out of control?” “It is not in control right now.”. Experts tell us the electricity doesn’t hurt the fish, but it does scare them since the school detects danger. “It’s literally raining fish; It is raining carp.” Silver carp are the jumpers that can sometimes top 40 or 50 pounds. The bigger Asian carp species here- black heads- can weigh twice that. The DNR team tests known hotspots on the Illinois River and tributaries to check for changes, documenting with their own video for analyzation and comparison. Matt O’Hara is the Asian carp project leader for Illinois DNR. “Pretty distressing when you come out here and you’re looking for native fish, and all you see is invasive Asian carp.” O’Hara says flying fish have greatly curbed recreational boating on the Illinois River. Fewer people dare to waterski any more. And as WGN Producer Pam Grimes found out, just standing in a boat can be hazardous. (Cellphone video of Pam getting hit in the head with a 10 pound carp)
“People have been hit and seriously injured,” says O’Hara. “I know there’s been some cases of broken noses and jaws.” O’Hara has been keeping tabs on this part of the Illinois River since 1991. “Their populations exploded. We saw our first fish in the early 90’s. Within a few years, there were fish everywhere.” “These fish have had an incredibly successful spawning season. Experts believe the population in the lower Illinois river has increased by at least a billion.” Making matters worse, each female can carry up to 2-million eggs and spawn three times a year. And each fish can have a life span of over 20 years. By the end of our trip, the shock boat looks to have a healthy haul from a day of commercial fishing. But, these are actually just some of the carp that really wanted to be counted. (another fish jumps in the boat) Irons says other states are looking here for help since the Asian carp problem continues to spread. “We’re lending our expertise to other states, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio River states are trying to mimic what we’re doing here in Illinois to try to prevent the expansion up the Mississippi or Ohio Rivers as well.” At the end of this day, it’s clear progress has been made. But, Irons says total elimination of Asian carp in the Midwest may be mission impossible. “We’ve got the best people in the country working on this issue. It’s just a big issue.”
On the Illinois River in Havana, Nancy Loo, WGN News.
Tomorrow night we’ll look at how a new plant near St. Louis is tackling the Asian carp problem. And for more information now, click the links below.
Producer Pam Grimes, and photojournalists Nelson Howard and Steve Scheuer contributed to this report.