By STEVE BINDER
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Top Illinois officials vowed during a meeting last week of a statewide rivers panel to continue to do everything possible to lessen the invasive threat of Asian carp – including eating them.
The state’s River Coordinating Councils, which meet quarterly to review federal and state policies regarding watersheds throughout the state, is chaired by Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon. During its meeting last week, she emphasized while federal officials are focusing on keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes, everyone in the state should be focused on other ways to limit the spread of the fish.
“For the fish native to our region to survive, we must act now to stop the spread of Asian carp,” Simon said. “Together with researchers from across the state, private organizations and Illinois agencies, we have many viable solutions to stop its spread and market it in a productive way.”
Fishing for carp and eating them has become one of the new key ways state leaders believe could help significantly limit the spread of the fish. “The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has been helping lead efforts to protect the Great Lakes from this aquatic invasive species with innovative programs like Target Hunger Now!” said Marc Miller, director of the DNR. “The efforts of the department to remove, track and monitor Asian carp movements in Illinois waters has been a massive undertaking, but one that is necessary to protect our environment here and throughout the Great Lakes Basin.”
The Target Hunger Now! program, begun in late 2010, has so far provided more than 2,000 meals to needy Illinoisans that include the protein-rich fish. Asian carp is a regular part of diets in China, and is considered a lighter-tasting white fish.
James Garvey, director of the Fisheries and Illinois Aquaculture Center at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, has been studying the carp’s presence for nearly two years. His recent report, Fishing Down the Bighead and Silver Carps: Reducing the Risk of Invasion to the Great Lakes, concludes Asian carp make up 63 percent of all fish biomass in the Illinois River. Just about every fish in the river that is bigger than 16 inches is the carp.
“Asian carp are now the dominant fish species in most major Illinois waterways. Because these fish are high in protein and have a similar fish oil composition of marine fish, they are an ideal food source,” Garvey said.
“We are exploring whether harvest is a feasible method for controlling these species, while simultaneously benefiting the consumers and fishing industry of Illinois.”
State officials have been involved in two key developments regarding the harvesting of the carp for food: a new processing plant set to open later this month in the southeastern town of Grafton, and the Big River Fisheries operation in the east-central town of Pearl, which plans to harvest and deliver 30 million pounds of carp a year to a Chinese processing plant.
The state approved a loan and a grant totaling $1.9 million to the operators and the city to help open the Heartland Fish Products LLC facility, which is expected to create full-time jobs. Its main focus will be on purchasing carp from fishers and processing the meat on-site for shipment overseas.
Asian carp were imported to the southern United States in the 1970s to help eliminate algae in ponds. After floods, they migrated up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers and are threatening to invade the Great Lakes, where scientists say they could out-compete native fish for food. They are prolific plankton eaters and reproduce at high rates.