CHICAGO — The dream of giant alligator gar shredding the nightmare of an Asian carp invasion of the Great Lakes with the blades of their prehistoric teeth has been dashed by an ancient adversary: Reality.
The alligator gar, a predator fish that can grow more than eight feet long and weigh more than 300 pounds, has in the last five years been reintroduced to Illinois waterways through the Department of Natural Resources.
But the native range of the fish ends in southern Illinois and it won’t be stocked north of Peoria, meaning they we will not be seeing the startling, dinosaur-like creatures around here, according to Dan Stephenson of the Department of Natural Resources.
Could one of the behemoths thwart the plan and swim into Chicago-area waters?
“It’s doubtful,” Stephenson said. “Never say never when you’re dealing with nature, but it’s a couple of hundred river miles to the city. They’ve never been up there before and it’s doubtful with our stocking, either. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news.”
The alligator gar has shown a taste for Asian carp, leading to widespread publicity that it could solve the Asian carp invasion. But gar aren't actually being re-introduced to halt the Asian carp invasion in its tracks — their return is to correct a wrong-headed decision in the 1900s to remove them (they were reportedly shot or blown up with dynamite) and to establish a commercial sport fishery.
“It’s nice to think you have a native species that will consume an invasive species, but will it make anything more than a good story to tell? Probably not,” said Solomon David, an aquatic ecologist who works with the Shedd Aquarium.
“The numbers are pointing in a direction where we can’t say alligator gar are going to save the Great Lakes from Asian carp. Once these invasive species are established they’re very hard to eliminate. We have smallmouth bass eating round gobies, another invasive species. Lake whitefish are eating zebra mussels. But just because that’s happening doesn’t mean they’re going to control the population,” he said.
There is no known magic bullet to thwart the Asian carp invasion. Mass kills and electric barriers have been used but there is one weapon of mass destruction that has yet to be channeled in the United States: the market of mass consumption.
“‘If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em,’ is our slogan,” said Dirk Fucik, the owner at Dirk’s Fish and Gourmet Shop, 2070 N. Clybourn Ave. in Lincoln Park.
Fucik has been making Asian carp into a ground product that is, he said, as versatile as hamburger. It can be rolled into meatballs, shaped into croquets, and turned into sausages and hot dogs, Fucik said.
“People love tilapia, we sell a lot of tilapia,” Fucik said. “It’s a boneless, six-ounce, bland fish. It’s boring and not the healthiest. It’s not bad for you, but it’s not salmon, and it’s not carp, either.”
The Asian carp is an exceedingly bony fish that needs to be fileted, skinned and ground up twice, but at that point it becomes a fine fish, better tasting and full of more of the healthy omega fatty acids than the ubiquitous tilapia, he said.
With some simple seasoning — garlic, salt and pepper, fresh thyme — the meat becomes a savory treat.
Fucik sells the fish at his shop and buys it regularly from his supplier. Some of Illinois carp already is sent to the Chinese market, where there is not stigma against the fish, but it is not enough to control the state population.
“Gar never could have been the cure-all” Fucik said. “They might be some of it, but there are too many carp. It has to be people.
"I heard someone describe getting rid of these fish as being like digging a hole in dry sand, you just can’t keep up," he said. "But how many fisheries have people decimated on their own? The human force is going to be the thing to get it going, we just have to get past this phobia of carp ... and the bones.”
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