LOCKPORT – Brennan Caputo reached down to pick up an orange-ish, diagonally scaled fish that had just been caught in a gillnet in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
The plump 10-pounder was a common carp.
“That was one more than I expected to catch today,” said Caputo, an Illinois Department of Natural Resources aquatic nuisance species specialist.
Caputo, who was with a pair of commercial fishermen contracted through the IDNR to help remove invasive species such as Asian carp from various Illinois waterways, was expecting no fish, because of the canal’s notoriously poor water quality and series of locks that prevent fish movement.
The objective that sunny Tuesday morning was to ensure Asian carp hadn’t advanced up the canal.
The crew fished for a few hours south of a series of electrical barriers in Romeoville that beam through the canal waters and act as last lines of defense to keep Asian carp from approaching and entering Lake Michigan.
Biologists believe Asian carp could decimate native fish populations in the Great Lakes by outcompeting young natives for the precious plankton they rely on. Asian carp eat up to 20 percent of their body weight a day in plankton and can grow to more than 100 pounds.
IDNR Aquaculture and Aquatic Nuisance Species program manager Kevin Irons was encouraged by the news that only one common carp was caught.
“We’re much more informed about where fish are and aren’t,” Irons said, comparing the department’s knowledge now to when it started removing carp from rivers five years ago. “It’s very important that we continue that.”
Caputo placed a small blue tag into the common carp’s back and clipped off a tiny piece of its fin before releasing it back to the canal.
Anyone who catches a tagged fish can call a number on the tag and report its location and size. It helps the IDNR track fish movement.
“We want an idea of how fish are moving,” Irons said. “Common carp and Asian carp move somewhat together. We often find common carp in other areas with Asian carp. Tracking is one of the best tools we have. If we find them in a new area, we can make assumptions about how they move.”
Although the common carp isn’t considered a nuisance, its cousin – the Asian carp – migrates similarly and is an invasive species.
Had the crew caught any Asian carp that day, they’d be hauled away and turned into organic fertilizer or dog food as have the millions of pounds the state has caught since 2012.
Asian carp have yet to emerge as table fare in America, although the crew complimented its taste when cooked fresh.
Illinois collected 1.1 million pounds of Asian carp last year, a state record, although it has hovered about 1 million a year since the program started, Irons said. The record was set with the help of the unified netting method, which the IDNR learned from Chinese fishermen. It allows crews to cover a larger area and trap more fish in an outing.
The record doesn’t mean there are more Asian carp in waterways such as the Illinois River now compared with 2012. It means the IDNR is learning and doing a better job of removing them, Irons said. IDNR crews have switched from 4- or 5-inch gillnets to 3-inch gillnets so smaller fish are less likely to escape.
Although poundage is about the same annually, the amount of fish being caught is higher, and the overall biomass of Asian carp in waterways is decreasing, Irons said. For example, the Dresden pool in the Morris area of the Illinois River now has 68 percent of the Asian carp biomass it had in 2012.
“Maintaining that lower level is important,” Irons said. “It’s not great, but it is a decrease. If it goes up, it means the threat is increasing. Maintaining the level is encouraging. Our fishermen are getting better and more efficient.”
But efforts to eradicate the invasive species, and others, could collapse.
President Donald Trump’s administration has proposed a 97 percent funding cut to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which has given billions of dollars to eight Great Lakes states since 2010 to help them improve water quality in the Great Lakes, defend against and remove invasive species, and enhance habitat.
Trump won five of the eight Great Lakes states in the November election. But environmental groups in the region have come out against the proposed cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which was designed to fix decades of damage caused by industrialization in the Rust Belt.
Asian carp made their way up the Mississippi River from flooded ponds in Arkansas during the 1970s. If they get into the Great Lakes, experts believe sport fishing for salmon, trout, walleye and other species would take a hit.
The Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory estimates that fish harvesting in the Great Lakes generates $1 billion a year, while sport fishing contributes at least $4 billion to the economy.
Additionally, a Conference of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers study found the region generates $5 trillion annually. It would be the third-largest economy in the world if the eight states, along with Ontario and Quebec, were a single country.
Not to mention, more than 40 million people get drinking water from the Great Lakes and the initiative has supplied funding for hundreds of projects to improve water quality.
The Trump administration has proposed a 31 percent budget cut to the Environmental Protection Agency. Lake Erie, according to published reports, is the other lake most in danger of an Asian carp invasion, and it experiences yearly algae blooms that have become toxic.
Irons is a member of the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee, which he said was facilitated in part by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. He said representatives from various states are working closely to combat the invasion and described it as a “model” for addressing other issues.
Nearly all of the IDNR’s efforts to remove Asian carp are funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Irons said.
For now, the proposed budget cuts are just talk. If they were to become reality, Illinois and other states would have to find a way to adjust.
“We’re committed as a state to make sure Asian carp don’t get into the next basin,” Irons said. “At the same time, we have our own budgetary constraints. We’re committed to finding the appropriate way to make sure this effort continues. We don’t plan to step away, and the effort won’t go away overnight.”