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Thursday, Aug. 19, 2010 06:14 pm

Fishing factions

Fishermen upset by Asian carp emergency contracts

Upset with the way lucrative government contracts for catching Asian carp on Chicago-area waterways were handed out, a group of commercial fishermen is speaking up.

Tony Pate, of Missouri, says he’s speaking for a group of about 30 commercial fishermen, most of them from Illinois, who work on Illinois waterways on a full-time basis. “By right, every commercial fisherman should have been entitled to have the chance to go up there,” Pate says, adding that the jobs pay “good money.”

In May, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, administering federal grant money  issued six emergency contracts with a total dollar value of $158,000 to commercial fishermen of its choice for netting Asian carp near Chicago. Nine more contracts, worth a total of $655,000, were issued in July for similar work, after authorities caught an Asian carp near Lake Calumet. Because the work was contracted on an emergency basis, the state isn’t required to go through regular bidding procedures.

“We had a sense of urgency that needed to be acted upon quickly,” DNR spokesman Chris McCloud says. “This is kind of a moving target,” he adds, explaining that so far the Asian carp response has been reactionary, something response crews are trying to change.

Pate says the emergency contract procedures aren’t fair and questions how DNR can get the most qualified fishermen – those with the most experience catching Asian carp – without performing a full search.

Kirby Marsden, president of the Illinois Commercial Fishing Association, says only a few of those behind Pate are members of the ICFA and that those behind Pate are not representative in any way of the ICFA’s opinions. “Most of these guys, I’ve known them all my life, they’re just really confused on this matter,” Marsden says.

He says commercial fishermen are accustomed to one-page contracts issued after a drawing, through which a set number of fishermen are allowed to fish special bodies of water. The contracts in question are more like employment contracts, dozens of pages in length, and require fishermen to have certain qualifications, including insurance or equipment that won’t be damaged by the electric barriers used to deter Asian carp from moving closer to Lake Michigan.

“DNR has picked out true pros with excellent equipment that can actually be there at daybreak and not break down and actually get the job done,” Marsden says.

The second round of government contracts expire on Sept. 30. McCloud says DNR is looking to hold a meeting for all commercial fishermen in order to explain the contract requirements. No date has been set yet for such a meeting. While the department is still working on the details, McCloud says that should more contracts be offered in the future the hope is to follow a regular procurement process.

“I just hope that the controversy settles down because it’s detrimental to the commercial fishing industry in Illinois,” Marsden says. “We’re here to do a job and we have a lot of good relationships with DNR.”

The state of Illinois recently awarded $2 million to a processing plant in Pearl to help establish a market for Asian carp, but Marsden says it will take time before new equipment is up and running – and providing an outlet for fishermen to sell the Asian carp dominating their catch.

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.
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