Fishing for answers on Asian carp - Metropolitan Planning Council

Skip to main content

Fishing for answers on Asian carp

Intentionally poisoning a body of water, for whatever reason, strikes most people as downright wrongheaded.  So when the Ill. Dept. of Natural Resources (in coordination with a number of federal and state agencies, private fishing firms, and nonprofit organizations), spent $3 million earlier this month to pour 2,200 gallons of rotenone into a 5.7-mile stretch of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, people were confused.  The poison was made necessary by a mandatory shut-down of a $9 million underwater electric barrier intended to prevent the Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes. The barrier will need periodic maintenance, likely meaning more shut-downs.  

Given that Asian carp DNA has been found beyond the barrier, and that some folks claim to have seen actual fish beyond the barrier as well, the poisoning seems to have been justifiable, despite the fact that only one Asian carp was found among the approximately 200,000 pounds of dead fish. A subsequent, labor-intensive sweep of the Calumet Sag channel and Little Calumet River turned up no Asian carp at all.

I agree that we need to keep the Asian carp out of the Great Lakes – it's a big, hungry, fast-breeding fish that would fundamentally alter the exisiting food chain and put further stress on the Lakes' endemic species. The immediate goal is to keep it out of Lake Michigan, and the longer-term goal is to reduce total population as much as possible throughout the whole state.  The electric gate hasn’t worked very well, despite its cost, and will need to be shut down twice a year.  Poisoning the canal every time that happens doesn’t seem like a viable long-term strategy.

Ultimately we probably need to sever the connection between the Lakes and the Mississippi River, which could entail re-reversing the flow of the river.  This would have a number of benefits for invasive species issues, but likely for water supply concerns too.  However, it also would take many, many, many years to accomplish. 

In the meantime, we need to reduce the Asian carp population.

The real problem is that the Asian carp has no natural predator in Illnois' rivers, because the species didn't evolve here.  Is it invasive? Not really; that designation masks human culpability.  The Asian carp were introduced to waterways in the American south by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture for their services as filter-feeders – then they escaped. Without a predator, their population has grown rapidly and spread geographically.  So are they invasive? No, more like opportunistic.

Either way, we need a predator. Since introducing another opportunistic species to kill them off would be a profoundly bad idea (though I will not be surprised by any proposals to unleash some carp-inclined virus or carniverous fish), we're going to have be the predator.  We're going to have to catch these things.

Hunters, fishers and governments have wiped out species on numerous occasions throughout history. Wolves. Cod. Buffalo. Whales.  They did so either because there was consumer demand for pelts, meat and oil, or because governments stepped in to create economic incentives for the slaughter of targeted pests.  

That's what needs to happen here ... but intentionally this time. 

We should create a market for carp products. The Asian carp is high in omega-3 fatty acids, a common health supplement.  They also can be processed into cat food, fertilizer, and a dietary supplement for livestock.  They can be fed whole to zoo animals.  They can be eaten by people, but because they are somewhat bony, are a bit tricky to eat.  Nonetheless, a few intrepid fishermen on the Illinois River have been able to supply traditional Asian-food markets in Chicago, New York, and other cities. 

The problem is Illinois lacks much of the infrastructure – fishing fleets, rendering plants, canning facilities – that the East, Gulf, and West coasts have. So we should invest in that infrastructure.  The State of Illinois could subsidize start-up costs for these industries as a way to jumpstart the market.  Then the private sector can sell carp products, while the state waives sales taxes and launches an aggressive marketing campaign.  Great chefs can find a way to serve them up, the Lincoln Park polar bear can gulp them down, and we can all fertilize our lawns with Grade A, Illinois-made, Asian carp fertilizer.  The other Great Lakes states, who all hate the Asian carp too, can follow suit.  The added benefit is that for every Asian carp that your kitten eats or you bury under your roses, the demand for other fish species and chemical-laden fertilizer decreases.

So let's train fleets of fishermen to catch these things.  Put people to work by putting a bounty on the Asian carp.  Starting in 2002, the State of Louisiana offered $4 for every nutria, a rodent that was destroying coastal wetlands.  Since then, cities in Louisiana have begun developing ties with markets in China, where the nutria is eaten.  By establishing a market for Asian carp products, we'd be creating a steady source of work and income as long as the population survived. 

An added benefit is that there would a fleet of trained, interested monitors out on Illinois waterways.  These fishermen would have every incentive to track fish movement, know where they are, go there, and catch them.  There would be no catch limits. If the fish is wiped out, so be it.  That is, after all, the goal.  Regular reports to IDNR would help track the population.  With fewer fish in the rivers, the electric barriers likely would work better too, and we might realize the full value of that investment.

The principle of goal-oriented investment, which MPC espouses across our various issues, is that you allocate funding based on your ends, not on what means have been used in the past.  We don't have to keep dumping poison and electrocuting these fish.  We can choose a different way ...  a way that creates jobs and contributes to the economy.  The state can get the ball rolling with initial investment, then let the private sector and consumer demand take over.  Lawsuits and rotenone won't kill the Asian carp for good, but the free market might.


  1. 1. Andy Waggoner from Chicago on January 11, 2010

    Like you say, the carp issue might actually start conversations about about other looming issues in the City. Re-reversing the Chicago River might actually require that Chicago not only address its role in securing the water supply for the Great Lakes Region, but it would also have to address the water quality issues that we would no longer be able to float down river.

  2. 2. Telescoping Fishing Rod on December 8, 2010

    Yes this is a tough issue. We've used retonone to eradicate pest fish in the past and its not something you do lightly. I hope you manage the carp issue and they don't make it to the Great Lakes.

  3. 3. Ron Wagner on July 13, 2011

    I would not want to see a lot of money spent on this project. there are probably already Asian Carp in the Great Lakes. If not, someone who likes them would probably add some.

  4. 4. Lisa from Aurora, IL on February 13, 2012

    I'm curious as to why you believe the "electric gate hasn't worked very well". No carp have made it beyond the gate, and it seems that one gate is much less expensive than trying to rid the lake of the carp after they've gotten in.

  5. 5. Josh Ellis on February 14, 2012

    Lisa, when this post was written in 2009, the electric barrier was in the process of being upgraded and expended specifically because there was concern that juvenile fish or fish moving in schools might be able to get through. Additionally, the barrier was actually built for another fish species - the round goby - and it failed to prevent that species from moving between basins. So in 2009, it was a fair claim. With that said, the upgrades and expansion in 2009 and 2010 appear to be doing a good job. The post here never says the electric barriers aren't a useful tool, simply that they shouldn't be the only tool.

More posts by Josh

All posts by Josh »

MPC on Twitter

Follow us on Twitter »

Stay in the loop!

MPC's Regionalist newsletter keeps you up to date with our work and our upcoming events.

Subscribe to Regionalist

Most popular news

Browse by date »

This page can be found online at

Metropolitan Planning Council 140 S. Dearborn St.
Suite 1400
Chicago, Ill. 60603
312 922 5616

Sign up for newsletter and alerts »