CHICAGO — Diners in China could soon help control the Asian carp that are infesting Illinois waterways and threatening the Great Lakes.
Gov. Pat Quinn announced an agreement Tuesday between a Chinese meat processing plant and an Illinois fish company that is expected to pull 30 million pounds of Asian carp from Illinois rivers by the end of next year. Illinois is investing $2 million in capital funds so Big River Fish in Pearl can expand its facilities and increase production capacity.
"If you can't beat 'em, you eat 'em," Quinn said. "That's what the battle is all about — we have too many Asian carp in the Illinois River and the Mississippi River. We don't want the Asian carp to get into the Great Lakes."
Biologists fear the voracious fish, which can balloon up to 100 pounds, could destroy the Great Lakes' $7-billion-a-year fishing industry by starving out native species.
Officials acknowledge that harvesting Asian carp won't eradicate them, but say it can dent their population. Commercial fishermen have already been fishing Asian carp out of the rivers, but the state's plan would increase the catch — and create jobs as Big River Fish expands, Quinn said.
Right now, electronic barriers, which emit pulses to scare the carp away or give a jolt if they proceed, are the last line of defense to keep them out of the lakes. But the recent discovery of an Asian carp beyond the barriers, in a lake six miles from Lake Michigan, gave new urgency to efforts to permanently separate the waterways that link the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes.
Those links were engineered more than a century ago to reverse the flow of the Chicago River and keep waste from flowing into Lake Michigan, which Chicago uses for drinking water.
Several lawmakers have introduced legislation in the U.S. House and Senate that would require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete research on so-called hydrological separation within 18 months now that they know for sure that the carp, which have been migrating up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers toward the Great Lakes for decades, are close at hand.
Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, said fishing is a stop-gap measure and separating waterways from the Great Lakes would be the only permanent solution.
"You will never be able to completely fish Asian carp out of the Illinois River or the Mississippi River," he said.
Still, Rick Smith, president of Big River Fish, said he wants fishermen to take out as many as they can. He said the fish, depending on the market and the season, can fetch from 10 cents to 15 cents a pound for a fisherman.
While the fish is a popular food in China, Smith admits the bony fish have a marketing problem with American diners.
"When you call something carp nobody likes it," he said.
Even China's consul general in Chicago, Yang Guoqiang, admits to struggling with the bony fish as a youngster until learning to love it later as an adult.
"We have the top quality fish here," Yang said.