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Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014 12:01 am

Gwyneth knows

Can fishy fads rid the Illinois of silver carp?

Matt O’Hara, Illinois Natural History Survey, holds a 15-pound silver carp that had jumped into the boat while O’Hara and his crew sampled the Illinois River’s fish populations.
PHOTO BY RACHEL WELLS

 

It is satisfying to contemplate that unbridled capitalism might in some cases be harnessed to rectify the damage done by unbridled capitalism. In recent weeks commercial fishing on the Illinois River, which a century ago virtually emptied those waters of sellable native fish, might begin to empty them of the nuisance exotic species that took their place – specifically the pestilential silver carp.
Whole fish of that bony species are about as attractive to fish eaters as crude oil is to automobile commuters. Happily, there are markets for food products made from such fish. Our worried well gobble fish oil containing omega-3 fatty acids by the quart, and poultry, pigs and farmed fish gobble dried fish meal. A small processing plant to make both opened at Grafton a few months ago, and a second one is in the works for Peoria. I suspect that locals will learn to love the stink of fish being cooked and dried, just as Houstonians love the smell of oil refineries, because it means jobs.

The Illinois once supported trappers, woodcutters, market hunters of waterfowl, net fishermen and musselers in turn. Each had organized themselves into enterprises devoted to making disappear populations of living things that at first seemed beyond counting. (In the 1910s, one Meredosia dealer shipped 34,000 muskrat pelts to London in one year and 100,000 to St. Louis the following year.) These operations couldn’t be called industries; many barely qualified as businesses. The harvesting was often frenetic and heedless, and usually led to the exhaustion of a given resource and the collapse of the trade in only a few years – hunting and gathering, Euro-American style.

The river and its backwater lakes teemed with buffalo, black bass and native carp. Railroad access to growing urban markets as distant as Boston turned fishing into a regional industry. Commercial fishing helped sustain such towns as Pekin, Havana, Beardstown and Meredosia, which had not seen much in the way of industry since meatpackers closed their doors in the 1850s. In one day in the 1920s, a Meredosia dealer loaded 60,000 pounds of live carp in tanker cars for shipment to Philadelphia, part of the one-tenth of the nation’s catch of freshwater fish that was harvested from the Illinois between Hennepin and Grafton in that period. Indeed, the Illinois was the second most important river fishery in the nation, after the salmon fishery of the Columbia River – for a while.

Can commercial fishing rid the Illinois of the Asian carp as efficiently? Crucial to a fledgling local fish processing industry is a steady supply of fish. A century ago commercial fishermen on the Illinois went about their business as heedlessly as legislators budgeting for pensions. Profitable species as buffalo were easiest to take when the fish were spawning, so that’s when they were taken, even though the practice destroyed uncounted millions of eggs on which future catches depended. The bottom-feeding German carp was introduced in the 1880s in the hope of sustaining a commercial fishery that overfished the populations of native buffalo to the point of depletion; that alien carp, much as the Asian silver carp is doing today, made itself a nuisance, depleting the wealth of native aquatic plant species upon which waterfowl fed. Thus did fishermen of the Illinois manage to kill off two local natural resource industries.

Harvesting mussel shells for the clothing industry excited a similar boom up and down the Illinois in 1907. By late 1911, the Illinois River had become the most productive water body per river mile in shelling history. Then the harvest crashed. Twenty-five shellers worked the river between Peoria and Pekin in 1910, 10 shellers in 1911, and only two in 1912. Downriver, 200 regular shellers operating between Meredosia and Naples gathered 100 rail car loads of shells during 1909; in 1912, only 35 regular shellers found it profitable to work the river, and they gathered only 15 rail car loads. The collapse probably owed as much to pollution as to over-harvest, but even clean waters soon would have been emptied of mussels by such manic harvesting.

Such a calamity, wrote one fisheries expert about the Illinois in 1898, “shows the disregard for the future which has come to be regarded as characteristic of fishermen.” One day, and probably sooner than later, officials will be warning that there are not enough silver carp in the Illinois.

Market exhaustion seems a bigger risk than resource exhaustion. The omega-3 phenomenon has all the earmarks of a fad; demand will rely on the influence that aging movie stars have on their fans. I am told that Gwyneth Paltrow thinks that omega-3 capsules are just the thing to keep one’s skin and hair glowing. Paltrow will swallow anything, but what if her fans stop swallowing her health advice? Happy for the Illinois, the credulity of the American pop fan is a sustainable resource.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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