Illinois River Carp Cowboys have lassoed our imagination

Photo: st-palette (iStock)

The term “carp cowboys” stirs the imagination. It could be a new kind of mid-American sushi (made with carp, naturally, and also ground beef and crispy onions). It could be a minor league baseball team, with an endearing and destined-to-go-viral logo of a cowboy riding an enormous, bucking carp and brandishing a trident, or maybe a lasso made of fishing net.

What the carp cowboys are, in reality, is even more thrilling: a team of fishermen on the Illinois River near Starved Rock State Park in Oglesby, Illinois, who spend their time controlling the invasive Asian carp population by corralling the fish into nets and removing them from the water. The thing that makes this exciting is that, since the carp don’t like sound or nets, they react by leaping from the water in a glorious aquatic ballet, sometimes directly into the fishing boats. (This is probably not intentional.)

The cowboys’ ultimate goal is to prevent the carp from invading Lake Michigan and wreaking havoc on the Great Lakes fishing industry by stealing food from other, smaller fish that people actually like to eat. There are also fears they could clog humans’ fishing nets and ruin industrial machinery. (Think of them as the squirrels of the inland sea.) So far the project has been successful: Per ABC 7, the cowboys diminished the Illinois River Asian carp population by 96% and they’re on a pace to catch 2 million pounds by the end of the year. Seems like it’s not their first carp rodeo.

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The fish have been shipped off to be turned into fertilizer and pet food, though the Illinois Department Of Natural Resources is hopeful that with some “rebranding” the fish may be sold for human consumption. Yee-haw!

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Aimee Levitt

Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.