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Friday, June 25, 2010

Watch out for the flying fish!


Jumping several feet into the air, a single silver carp can knock a boat driver unconscious before a passenger even has time to say “Duck!”

For that reason, the Illinois Natural History Survey station in Havana installed netting around the steering wheel and dashboard of its electro-fishing boats.

“It’s simply one of the most dangerous things that we’re doing, so we have to protect ourselves. We can’t have a fish jumping on the throttle [or] a fish knocking somebody out,” says Kevin Irons, INHS fisheries specialist.

The invasive species has become a common sight on the Illinois River and its tributaries, including parts of the Sangamon River, but leaping silver carp are only the most visible representation of a much deeper problem – one that scientists fear will soon spread to the Great Lakes, where Asian carp threaten a $7 billion fishing and tourism industry.

“Economic damage is the fish hitting people, people not wanting to spend time on the water,” says Irons. “But the ecological damage is much worse. … People can see this and say ‘Oh my gosh, this is horrible,’ but they don’t understand the effects of having them in the water year after year after year.”

While biologists and fishermen now see Asian carp as an environmental detriment, the fish were originally brought to the country as an environmentally safe alternative to chemical treatment, Irons says. In the 1960s and 1970s, southern fish farmers imported Asian carp to help keep catfish ponds clean.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Irons says. “We can use a biological control to control nutrients in our catfish ponds, our catfish is healthier, tastes better, and then you have a large fish that you can use for either cleaning up the next pond or you can use for animal feed or fertilizers.”

But once flooding washed Asian carp out of the controlled ponds and into the Mississippi River, the fish quickly became an environmental problem and have been threatening to change the ecology of major waterways ever since.

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