'Carp Cowboys' keep invasive flying fish at bay

Invasive Asian Carp have presented a serious threat to the ecology of the Great Lakes for years. While the threat is still very real, the battle to keep them at bay has been largely successful thanks in part to the "Carp Cowboys."

The Cowboys recently went on a cattle drive of sorts on the Illinois River near Starved Rock. Dozens of silver Asian Carp start going crazy before the Cowboys can even get their nets in the water -- they don't like nets and they don't like noise -- so they jump, performing a fish ballet and launching right into the trappers' corral.

"Thus the 'Carp Cowboys.' They're trying to corral them into the nets and then they'll go back, pick up the nets and hand pick these individually out of the net," said Kevin Irons, with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The Cowboys are commercial fishermen hired by the state as a key tool in the fight to contain the Asian Carp population. So far, it's working: Upriver and a bit closer to Lake Michigan, the Illinois River's Dresden pool has seen its Asian Carp population drop dramatically.

"That is a success. That population is down 96 percent," Irons said. "That far exceeds our expectations when we started this program 10 years ago."

But there's still plenty of carp to be caught near Starved Rock.

"Oh we're doing pretty good," Jim Dickau, one of the Cowboys, said during of his haul. "I switched to bigger net, heavier mesh. Last time I think they were just blowin' through."

Not this day. Dickau ended with roughly 6,000 lbs. of Asian Carp.

Sometimes a net doesn't even seem necessary. ABC7 photographer Mark Nordby got bopped in the back of the head by a fish jumping into the boat. He was given a reprieve.

"He'll just make a mess. We'll get him next week," Irons said.

What the Cowboys catch is shipped off for use as fish fertilizer and animal treats, among other things, though Irons believes they could become more popular for human consumption with some proper rebranding. The group estimates that they'll catch a record 2 million pounds of Asian Carp by year's end.

The Army Corps has recommended construction of a new electrified underwater fish barrier in Joliet - an addition to one that already exists upriver in Romeoville.

So far the Great Lakes are safe, but the Cowboys will stick to the round-ups. It's like cutting the grass: Don't do it, and it just comes back.
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