Huge, Once-Hated Fish Now Seen As Weapon Against Asian Carp
29 July 2016
By Tammy Webber, AP
CHICAGO — It’s a toothy giant that can grow longer than a horse
and heavier than a refrigerator, a fearsome-looking prehistoric
fish that plied U.S. waters from the Gulf of Mexico to Illinois
until it disappeared from many states a half-century ago.
Persecuted by anglers and deprived of places to spawn, the
alligator gar — with a head that resembles an alligator and two
rows of needlelike teeth — survived primarily in southern states
in the tributaries of Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico after
being declared extinct in several states farther north. To many,
it was a freak, a “trash fish” that threatened sportfish,
something to be exterminated.
But the once-reviled predator is now being seen as a valuable fish
in its own right, and as a potentially potent weapon against a
more threatening intruder: the invasive Asian carp, which have
swum almost unchecked toward the Great Lakes, with little more
than an electric barrier to keep them at bay. Efforts are now
underway to reintroduce the alligator gar from Illinois to
“What else is going to be able to eat those monster carp?” said
Allyse Ferrara, an alligator gar expert at Nicholls State
University in Louisiana, where the species is relatively common.
“We haven’t found any other way to control them.”
Alligator gar, the second-largest U.S. freshwater fish behind the
West Coast’s white sturgeon, have shown a taste for Asian carp,
which have been spreading and out-competing native fish for food.
The gar dwarf the invaders, which themselves can grow to 4 feet
and 100 pounds. The world-record alligator gar was 8 ½ feet
and 327 pounds, though they can grow larger.
Native Americans once used their enamel-like scales as arrow
points, and early settlers covered plow blades with their tough
skin and scales. But a mistaken belief that they hurt sportfish
led to widespread extermination throughout the 1900s, when they
were often shot or blown up with dynamite.
“Some horrible things have been done to this fish,” said Ferrara,
adding that sport fisheries are healthier with gar to keep
troublesome species like carp under control. “It’s similar to how
we used to think of wolves; we didn’t understand the role they
played in the ecosystem.”
Gar now are being restocked in lakes, rivers and backwaters —
sometimes in secret locations. — in several states This month,
Illinois lawmakers passed a resolution urging state natural
resources officials to speed up its program and adopt regulations
to protect all four gar species native to the state.
But the extent to which gar could control carp now is not
well-understood, and some people are skeptical.
“I don’t think alligator gar are going to be the silver bullet
that is going to control carp by any stretch of the imagination,”
said Rob Hilsabeck, an Illinois biologist who says the best hope
is that carp will sustain an alligator gar fishery to draw trophy
Others are more optimistic about the impact once the larger fish
is established, which might require cutting notches in canals to
give them access to spawning sites.
Asian carp reproduce more quickly but alligator gar also grow
fast: Alligator gar stocked in one Illinois lake six years ago
already are more than 4 feet long.
Quinton Phelps, a Missouri state fish ecologist, said the only way
to effectively control carp is when they’re smaller, before they
can spawn. Which is where alligator gar come in.
“There is potential for them to be a wonderful weapon, but it’s
just potential right now,” he said.
One challenge is that huge gar could become a temptation for
trophy fishermen — even before they’re old enough to spawn.
“It will be interesting to see if fishermen have enough integrity
to pass up a 7-foot fish that’s 200 pounds,” said Christopher
Kennedy, a Missouri fisheries supervisor who’s working on catch
regulations. “We’d love to create a self-sustaining population
that we can turn into a trophy fishery.”
Still, the fish has a public relations problem in some circles,
including a boating group in Illinois, whose members recently
derided it as a “trash fish” and questioned reintroduction
But avid angler Olaf Nelson, who in 2013 was the first to catch an
alligator gar in Illinois in 50 years — a 2-footer in a stocked
lake— said they’re important whether anyone wants to fish for them
“Whether they’re loved or hated, they’re a natural part of the
Illinois ecosystem,” he said. “It’s pretty rare that we can fix a