MICHELE NORRIS, host:
There's some good news to report about an invasive species of fish that biologists fear could have a devastating impact on native fish in the Great Lakes. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says Asian Carp have not advanced beyond a lock and dam on the Illinois River, about 50 miles southwest of Chicago.
So they are no closer to entering Lake Michigan than they were a year ago. But bighead and silver Asian carp are rapidly taking over parts of the Illinois downriver. And as NPR's David Schaper reports, one of the only ways to possibly control the population might be best phrased: if you can't beat it, eat it.
DAVID SCHAPER reporting:
Looking for Asian carp on the Illinois River is a little like toward the sky on the 4th of July.
(Soundbite of people cheering)
Mr. ERIC LEIS (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service): And it almost went in.
SCHAPER: Silver carp are so skittish that they leap out of the water, some six to eight feet high when disturbed by the sound and wakes of motorboats.
Mr. LEIS: Boy, they're really jumping high back there.
SCHAPER: Eric Leis of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leads one of the agency's carp corral teams, netting fish in various locations on the Illinois River to determine how far upstream Asian carp have moved and how fast their population is growing. This is his fifth year on the carp corral, and Leis says there are more Asian carp than ever before.
Mr. LEIS: We had so many carp in these nets this morning that they actually - the carp pulled the nets downriver. So we really haven't had that happen before.
SCHAPER: Silver and bighead Asian carp can grow to be 80 to 100 pounds each, and they consume up to 40 percent of their body weight in plankton each day. That's a critical food source for some native species, especially young fry. Asian carp were brought into the U.S. in the early ‘70s to reduce algae in catfish farms in the South. Floods washed them into the Mississippi River in the ‘80s, and they've been working their way up it and its tributaries ever since.
They've thrived in the Illinois River especially well, and biologists with the Illinois Natural History Survey see initial signs that Asian carp may be starting to crowd out two native species: gizzard shad and largemouth buffalo.
Mr. ORION BRINEY (Commercial Fisherman): Well, we used to fish for buffalo and stuff, and we'd catch these accidentally.
SCHAPER: Commercial fisherman Orion Briney says bighead Asian carp began filling his nets several years ago and quickly cut into his ability to make a living. But now they're his bread and butter, because rather than quit, this third-generation fisherman changed course and now fishes specifically for Asian carp.
(Soundbite of boat engine)
It's just after dawn, and Briney and his stepson, Jeremy Fisher, are out on the Illinois River about 30 miles north of Peoria laying out nets.
Mr. BRINEY: Let go, don't worry about it. It's straight back here, Jeremy. Yeah, just let it go.
SCHAPER: Briney then turns the 30-foot flat-bottom boat upriver and searches the horizon for telltale ripples in the otherwise calm early morning water.
(Soundbite of boat engine)
Mr. BRINEY: That's fish. See it out there? How different it looks? That's a big school of them.
SCHAPER: Briney then goes upriver of the fish.
So you just keep making passes back and forth?
Mr. BRINEY: Yeah, keep trying to - just trying to herd them like cattle. Trying to keep them moved down that way.
SCHAPER: Briney drives thousands of bighead carp down towards the nets, which quickly fill up.
(Soundbite of water splashing)
SCHAPER: The fish weigh at least 15 to 25 pounds each. Briney and Fisher pull up the heavy net by hand and toss each flopping fish into the bottom of the boat. They'll get 14 cents a pound for these carp. Not a lot, but Briney says they more than make up for that with the huge volume of fish. In fact, he says since he started fishing for Asian carp, he's doubled his income.
Mr. BRINEY: Boy they're ugly fish. I used to think that, but now I think they look pretty good. About $4 a fish. That's pretty good, huh?
SCHAPER: Briney and Fisher take in about 10 to 12,000 pounds of Asian carp from the river on this morning, and they drive their catch to Schafer Fisheries, a processing plant in Thompson, Illinois.
Mr. MIKE SCHAFER (Owner, Schafer Fisheries): We've been developing a market for this fish for about the last seven years.
SCHAPER: Owner Mike Schafer says his company sells more than 2 million pounds of Asian carp a year, mostly in Asian-American communities in California, New York, and Chicago. He's invested in a new flash freezer, and hopes to soon start selling Asian carp to China and other Asian markets.
Others in the Midwest are beginning to fish and process Asian carp, too. And there's hope that the increased fishing will help control the invasive Asian carp population. David Schaper, NPR News.