June 12, 2024

Close encounters with native fish

The see-through aquarium at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources fisheries exhibit features well-known and not-so-known species from the state’s waters. Kevin Irons, IDNR’s assistant chief of fisheries, said the Illinois State Fair exhibit at Conservation World serves not only as an educational tool, but also draws stories from fishermen of all ages.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — A visit to an Illinois Department of Natural Resources exhibit at the Illinois State Fair not only educates but also stirs fish stories.

The IDNR fisheries exhibit in Conservation World includes a see-through aquarium featuring sport fish from Illinois’ rivers and lakes.

“It’s amazing. We get all kinds of stories and it doesn’t matter what the age. We get them from 5 year olds to 95 year olds. Everybody has a story,” said Kevin Irons, IDNR’s assistant chief of fisheries.

“You can see fish in a very natural way here. We have a tank the size of a small semi-truck trailer, and that’s an upgrade. If you’ve been coming to the fair a long time you may remember the swimming pools we had and you could look down on the fish.

“While that was unique, this allows you really to see fish in a more natural environment. You can see their shapes and their activity and people just love it.”

The aquarium includes bass, crappie, bluegill, carp and alligator gar and educates visitors on fish native to Illinois, including some species they may not be unaware of.

“We have alligator gar, one of them is almost 70 pounds. They were extirpated from Illinois with the last ones being caught in the 1960s. We were able to bring them back in 2009, working with a hatchery out of Tupelo, Mississippi,” Irons said.

“We bring them here and now we have in the state of Illinois 70-pound alligator gar swimming and a species that’s accessible to sport anglers in places like Powerton Lake and Banner Marsh and into the rivers, too, like Big Muddy or the Kaskaskia.”

Once the state fair is over, the fish are moved to various locations.

“We have district biologists from across central Illinois who bring these fish here, and at the end of the fair, a lot of these will go back to the habitats where they came from. They’ll go back to Powerton Lake. They’ll go back to our rivers,” Irons noted.

“A couple of the more common species might find their way into the pond here. That helps out with some of our events we have throughout the year to introduce people to fish and fishing right here on the fairgrounds.”

Carp To Copi

An invasive fish species that’s threatened the waterway ecosystems because of its overconsumption of plankton, a food source for many other fish, was also featured at this year’s State Fair.

Copi, the new consumer food brand for bighead and silver carp, also known as Asian carp, was on sale for the first time at the fair at the Flippin’ Fish Shack in Conservation World near IDNR’s fisheries exhibit.

Fairgoers were able to enjoy Copi nuggets, Copi empanadas and Copi sliders from the food stand operated by Darla Drainer of Grafton.

The carp to Copi rebrand was to combat public misconceptions and increase consumer interest in the mild, tasty fish with heart-healthy omega-3s.

“The bighead and silver carp are invasive and troublesome and Copi is a unique way to say, hey, this is actually pretty tasty. They’re delicious and one of the most consumed fish in the world. There’s all kinds of ways to cook this fish and it should be coming to menus all throughout Illinois and the Midwest,” Irons said.

Asian carp were introduced in the southern United States in the 1960s and 1970s to control algae blooms in aquaculture facilities, farm ponds and sewage lagoons.

Floods, particularly in 1993, and human mismanagement helped the carp escape into the Mississippi River system and quickly spread.

A 2019 study looking at 20 years of fish population data in the Mississippi River system confirmed bighead, silver, grass and black carp out-competed sport fish, causing population declines for prized species such as yellow perch, bluegill and black and white crappie.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Biological Invasions. Lead author was John Chick, University of Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences research professor and Great Rivers Field Station director at Alton.

IDNR launched the Copi brand in June 2022, generating regional, national and international attention. Illinois processors have reported doubling their sales since the launch, and nationwide sales are now available.

“We’ve had to do all kinds of things to manage this species, including putting up barriers and doing targeted fishing, but commercial fishers can do this work for us. It also drives the economy. We’re buying fresh, healthy fish from Illinois as opposed to bringing fish from Vietnam, the Philippines or somewhere across the world, which has a whole other cost associated to it,” Irons noted.

“Since we launched the name, Copi, 17.5 million pounds of bighead and silver carp have been removed from our water.”

Tom Doran

Tom C. Doran

Field Editor