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article imageU.S. scientists hope prehistoric fish can solve modern problem

By Nathan Salant     Jul 31, 2016 in Science
Chicago - A giant prehistoric fish once thought to be extinct could be the solution to the worsening invasion of non-native Asian carp that is choking U.S. rivers and crowding out local species.
The alligator gar disappeared from most states in the 1900s after extensive extermination efforts but is now being reintroduced as competition for the invasive carp, which can grow as large as four-feet long and 100 pounds, and have displaced native fish species from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes.
"What else is going to be able to eat those monster carp?" said Allyse Ferrara, an alligator gar expert at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, where the toothy, prehistoric species still can be found.
"We haven't found any other way to control them," she said, according to the Associated Press.
Marine scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Tupelo, Miss., for example, have been capturing alligator gar from freshwater rivers and lakes to lay and fertilize eggs at hatcheries to raise a new generation of the fish, and then returning them to the wild.
The fish was previously regarded as a threat to sport fishing that needed to be eliminated, and largely was, from Illinois to Tennessee, the AP said.
The fish, the second-largest U.S. freshwater fish, has a head like an alligator and two rows of needle-like fish, and can grow as long as eight-feet.
The largest alligator gar on record was 8 1/2-feet long and weighed 327 pounds.
Native Americans used alligator gar scales to tip their arrows and early settlers even covered the blades of their plows with alligator gar skin and scales, the AP said.
But that didn't stop sport fisherman from trying to wipe them out two centuries ago with guns and dynamite, under the mistaken belief that they were a threat to their fisheries.
"Some horrible things have been done to this fish," Ferrara said, even though she said sport fisheries were healthier with alligator gar than without them keeping predators under control.
"It's similar to how we used to think of wolves; we didn't understand the role they played in the ecosystem," she said.
But now, local rivers and lakes are being restocked with the fish, and the Illinois legislature passed a resolution last month applauding the program and urging it to be sped up.
Of course, not everyone is on board with the effort.
"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 Illinois biologist Rob Hilsabeck, who favors establishing an alligator gar fishery for trophy hunters.
Others, such as Quinton Phelps, a state fish ecologist from Missouri, says invasive carp can only be controlled when they are small, before they begin to spawn.
Alligator gar could be effective if they are used early, not later, he said.
"There is potential for them to be a wonderful weapon, but it's just potential right now," he said.
One expected challenge is expected to come from trophy fisherman, who may not be able to pass up catching an immature seven-foot gar that is hunting down invasive carp.
"It will be interesting to see if fishermen have enough integrity to pass up a 7-foot fish that's 200 pounds," said Missouri fisheries supervisor Christopher Kennedy, who is helping to write new regulations governing the potential new catch.
"We'd love to create a self-sustaining population that we can turn into a trophy fishery," he said.
But the fish still is regarded as a "trash fish" in many areas, complicating support for reintroduction efforts.
"Whether they're loved or hated, they're a natural part of the Illinois ecosystem," said avid fisherman Olaf Nelson, who in 2013 became the first angler to catch an alligator gar in Illinois in 30 years while fishing at a stocked lake.
"It's pretty rare that we can fix a mistake," he told the AP.
More about alligator gar, Asian carp, Fishery, Control, Prehistoric
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