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Carp to the Rescue?

Nothing will make a lobsterman wince more quickly than the words “herring shortage.” Unfortunately, that is what Maine lobstermen are facing this summer, due to a dramatic reduction by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in the 2019 herring quota.

fisherman holding a large bighead carp

Bighead carp grow up to four feet in length. They are avid filter feeders and threaten native freshwater fish. Photo courtesy of Chicago Tonight

The bait shortage — nearly 77 million pounds of herring — can’t be made up from any one single source, leaving bait dealers scrambling to find alternative baits prior to the start of the lobstering season. One possible source, silver and bighead carp from the Illinois River, is under evaluation by the Department of Marine Resources. Results of that evaluation are due in May. The Illinois River has a problem. Back in the early 1900s, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was constructed to convey sewage and ships between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Valley, two previously distinct ecological regions. Asian carp entered the picture when catfish aquaculturists later brought the fish into the country to clean the ponds in which the catfish were raised. The carp are voracious plankton feeders, well suited to the task. Flooding and accidental releases, however, allowed these fish to escape into the Mississippi River system and migrate into the Missouri and Illinois rivers. And there they reproduced. Silver and bighead carp are big fish, growing to more than four feet long. They have no natural predators in the Illinois River; the fear is that the fish will ultimately reach the Great Lakes and devastate the food web there. Which leads to an opportunity. The Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) has been working with the State of Illinois and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine if silver and bighead carp harbor any pathogens or parasites that could harm marine species in the Gulf of Maine. If not, a new and abundant source of lobster bait may become available. “We are testing carp from the Illinois River upstream of where commercial fishing takes place to determine if they are without disease. We are concerned about the connection of the Great Lakes to the Illinois River in terms of diseases,” explained Nicholas Popoff, resource coordinator at DMR. “If the fish are free of disease, then we need to establish a chain of custody — where it was caught, where processed, where it was shipped from.” The objective of all this scrutiny is to make sure that any bait brought into Maine for the lobster fishery does not have a negative impact on lobster or any other marine species. Illinois is keen to provide incentives to businesses in order to motivate a commercial fishery. Popoff noted that a recent report from the state estimated that 20 to 50 million pounds of fish could be harvested annually. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources announced earlier this year a new Asian Carp Market Value Program, which offers grants of up to $8,000 to help companies market their Asian carp products. The program will provide grants to cover costs of attending trade shows and conferences related to market development and sales of Asian carp products. Currently there’s a limited market for the fish as food, although in China, where the fish is a common food item, the populations of silver and bighead carp have declined sharply due to a combination of overfishing, pollution and hydroelectric dams. Although commercial fishermen on the Illinois River receive approximately 10 cents per pound at the moment, if a bait market for silver and bighead carp does develop in Maine, “it could be a win/win,” Popoff noted. After the results of testing are received, DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher will meet with staff to discuss the results. Commissioner Keliher will then announce if the fish will be included in the department’s list of approved lobster and crab baits.

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