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Fight against aquatic invader continues: Eating Asian carp in Illinois, stopping advances in Minnesota


by Tim Anderson ~ October 2011 ~ Stateline Midwest

Ever since they escaped fish farms in the southern United States, Asian carp have been eating their way up the Mississippi River.
Now Illinois is trying to turn the table — by increasing the use of the invasive species caught by fishermen as food for an anti-hunger campaign in the state and as a delicacy for overseas customers.
There are plenty of Asian carp to catch. In stretches of a waterway heavily invested with the species, it can make up 80 percent to 90 percent of the total fish biomass. In 2010, commercial fishing crews contracted by the state removed more than 100,000 pounds of Asian carp along about a 30-mile stretch of the Illinois River.
“In the U.S., Asian carp is thought of as a bottom-feeding fish that is not good to eat,” says Michael Stevens, legislative liaison for the Illinois DNR. “But the fact is that it is a good white meat.”
This protein-rich fish will now be used as a food source for Target Hunger Now program, which distributes food to Illinois’ system of food banks.
Last year, Illinois entered into an agreement with a Chinese meat-processing company and an in-state fishing facility to harvest and ship up to 30 million pounds of carp for resale in international markets.
Stevens cautions that the state does not want to establish a large commercial market for the fish.
That could create pressures to maintain a sustainable population of Asian carp — rather than the current strategy of eradicating them — and raise the likelihood of them moving, or being moved, to other waterways.
Still, the fishing of Asian carp is a tool that will continue to be used as part of control efforts.
“It is a way of tracking where they are and trying to control where they go,” Stevens says.
Preventing the invasion of Asian carp into Lake Michigan (via the Chicago Area Waterway System) has been a chief concern of state and federal officials ever since populations of bighead carp and silver carp were found in the Illinois River in the 1990s.
Multiple electric barriers have been built, fish poison has been applied, locks and dams have been temporarily closed, and netting and “electrofishing” (the stunning of fish) have been employed. But none of these strategies is considered a “magic bullet” to stopping or eradicating Asian carp — hence the push by some lawmakers to permanently close the locks or explore the feasibility of creating a permanent, ecological separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River systems.
Meanwhile, Minnesota is stepping up its efforts to control the spread of Asian carp.
“We don’t have the luxury of time,” Steve Hirsch of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said at an Asian carp summit held in September. The species has been found in lower parts of the Minnesota/Wisconsin portion of the Mississippi River, he said, and its DNA has been detected in the St. Croix River.
Part of Minnesota’s strategy borrows from ongoing efforts in the Chicago Area Waterway System, but in many ways, the state is having to develop its own plan — with little historical precedent or research to use as a guide. For example, the use of electric barriers (the primary method being used in Illinois) cannot be used in an open-river system, Minnesota DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said at the September meeting.
The state instead plans to install a sound barrier at the mouth of the St. Croix River and is looking to build physical barriers that keep Asian carp from migrating to the upper reaches of the Upper Mississippi River.
Minnesota also wants the U.S. Congress to give the Army Corps of Engineers authority to close locks and dams when necessary to stop carp movement.


Brief written by Tim Anderson. CSG Midwest staffs the Great Lakes Legislative Caucus, a nonpartisan group of state and provincial lawmakers. Minnesota Sen. Ann Rest serves as chair of the caucus.