Asian carp create a warzone on the water in rural Illinois

Every summer a small tributary of the Illinois River becomes a battleground.

Thousands of fishermen armed with bows and arrows, baseball bats, fishing poles and nets come to Bath, Illinois to attack an ever-growing army of Asian carp.

As the boats cruise through the water, silver-finned torpedoes launch from the murky waters into the air.

Once a place for a quiet afternoon of fishing or a fun-filled waterski, the Illinois River has become a warzone as Asian carp – agitated by the sounds of motors – hurtle towards the targets in the boats.

The annual Redneck Fishing Derby is the town’s way of waging a counterattack.

“The whole idea behind that whole tournament for me is to spread the awareness of what’s gonna happen because they have taken over our fun. They have taken over our waterway,” the derby’s organizer Betty DeFord told Carolyn Jarvis, the host of the Global News program 16×9.

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Watch Global News’ 16X9 on Friday night to see the impact of the Asian carp and what is being done to stop them from spreading into the Great Lakes.

Asian carp were introduced to North America via fish farms in the southern United States back in the 1970s. The filter-feeding, plankton-loving carp were ideal for keeping the farms clean, but two carp species, the bighead and silver, escaped after flooding and started making a new home in the Mississippi Basin.

Since then the fish have steadily worked their way north, decimating local fish populations and ruining recreational activities. Now they are knocking at the door of the Great Lakes, threatening the $9-billion fishing industry and to forever change the way anglers, boaters and cottagers use the waterways.

Bath serves as a frightening forecast for the future of the Great Lakes.

“The message is if they’re not in your waterways now, don’t let them in there,” said DeFord. “You write letters, phone calls, whatever. You get on the bandwagon and you keep them out of your rivers, because once they’re there, they’re there to stay.”

The silver carp are the species that spring out of the water and are targeted by derby-goers.

After just three days on the water, the fishermen are bruised and bloodied by the flying fish.

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“I have never been in a fight, but I’ve never been hit that hard by anything in my life,” said a participant on Team Bailey. “I cried.”

Other derby participants have cuts after being “finned” by a flying silver carp. One boat flipped in the river. Nearly everyone comes back to shore glazed with a layer of fish slime.

Another derby participant Brian Smith was hit by carp twice in one day, a feeling he likened to being punched.

“Luckily, I didn’t get a black eye or anything crazy, but there was one driver, his eyes were swollen shut,” he said.

Now derby-goers brace themselves for such abuse, but it initially came as a shock for DeFord.

DeFord started the tournament in 2004 after a traumatic boat ride with her husband.

“We was throwing them out right and left. We still had 32 of them left on the boat when we got done,” she said. “We were bloody and slimed head-to-toe from these things.”

The experience left them determined to get their waterway back – and the tournament was born starting with five boats and 200 dead carp.

This year 10,600 carp were caught in just three heats of two hours, with a total of 11,000 fish expected to die during the course of the two-day battle.

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“They’re just fish after fish after fish after fish here,” DeFord said. “This is ridiculous.”

Both the fish and the fisherman walk away from the tournament with battle scars, but the real casualties are the river’s natural ecosystems.

The filter-feeding carp can eat 40 per cent of their body weight each day largely feasting on plankton and other vegetation. Such voracious appetites could mean a dire future for the food supply of native fish like bass and bullhead.

Two American studies suggest local fish populations of buffalo and shad have dropped in weight. Already nine out of ten of the fish pulled out of the Mississippi River basin are Asian carp, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The vast number of carp can also interrupt the spawning of native fish.

DeFord said commercial fisherman in Bath, once a thriving fishing town, now have no choice but to fish for Asian carp to get them out of the water.

The changed ecosystem has also taken a toll on recreational boaters, who take their lives into their hands going out onto the silver carp-infested river.

DeFord, who married her husband on a houseboat, has all but stopped boating. The only time they risk going out is when the water levels get higher and the carp calm down.

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“When its water is down we never take our little ones with us,” she said. “You can’t endanger your lives going out there.”

Another four hours upstream is the last line of defence against a Great Lakes invasion: the Chicago Shipping and Sanitary Canal.

The 45-kilometre, century-old canal is the gateway to Lake Michigan and is fortified against the onslaught of carp by an electric barrier. The barrier pushes an electric pulse through the water meant to shock or disable the fish and send them back downstream.

DNA from Asian carp has been found north of the barrier. Authorities believe the DNA likely came from fish-based fertilizers or from blood in sewers in Chicago where Asian carp are sold in fish markets.

So far the front of the carp battle has held steady 29 kilometres downstream since 2007 when monitoring began.

But only time will tell who will win the war.

“Keep ‘em out of your waterways,” Smith said. “I really don’t wanna find out what these would do if they got into our lakes.”

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