They were once one of Indiana’s most feared predator and could reach lengths of over nine feet and weigh nearly 300 pounds. Covered with armor like scales their huge mouth sported not just one row of imposing razor-like teeth - but two. To many, they were considered trash fish that should be exterminated, even though they posed little, if any, threat to humans.
It wasn’t that long ago alligator gar inhabited waters from the Gulf of Mexico all the way to our northern states, including Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. Now, they exist in just a handful of our southern tier states. These fish literally swam with the dinosaurs and their evolution has seen little change.
But, we may be seeing a gar renaissance. The once persecuted predator is being seen as a valuable fish in its own right and as a potential weapon in the fight against a more threatening intruder, the highly invasive Asian carp, a fish with little if any benefit which have been spreading out of control and out competing native game fish for food and habitat.
Accidently released into southern waters the destructive carp have swam almost unchecked towards the Great Lakes where they could destroy the billion dollar fishery. Plans are underway in Illinois, where the alligator gar was declared extinct in 1994, to reintroduce them in the hopes they can help curtail carp numbers.
Several states have already released gar into some lakes, rivers and backwaters. Illinois lawmakers have passed a resolution urging their natural resources officials to accelerate their program and adopt regulations to protect all gar species native to the state.
“What else is going to eat those monster carp?” said Allyse Ferrara, an alligator gar expert at Nichols State University in Louisiana, where both gar and carp species are present. Alligator gar have shown an appetite for Asian carp, which themselves can grow to four feet and weigh over 100 pounds.
Although cautiously optimistic, Indiana is going to take a “wait and see” attitude. “We are not sure if it will have much of an impact,” said Eric Fischer, invasive species program director for the DNR. He went on to say it takes years for the gar to attain their huge size while the carp can reproduce at alarming rates and grow much more quickly.
Asian carp have little benefit. Their flesh is unpalatable and they destroy native sportfish nests and habitat. Their accidental release has had a dramatic effect on Midwestern waters. They have however opened up opportunities for bowfishermen. “They really are a nasty fish,” says Tony Hoffstetter, who with his children Rachel and Andrew makes several trips each year to Illinois to arrow the prolific carp. “We will usually get 40 or 50 a night then take them to a place that makes fertilizer,” he added. “That’s about all they are good for.”
For years the alligator gar were reviled and considered a nuisance fish themselves. They were decimated through hunting, trapping, netting and almost any other method to remove them. “Some horrible things have been done to those fish,” said Ferrara, who believes sport fisheries are healthier with gar to keep troublesome species like carp under control. “It’s similar to how we used to view our native wolves,” she continued. “We didn’t understand the vital role they played in the ecosystem.”
It’s always been difficult to fix a mistake concerning our fish and wildlife resources and usually at great expense, time and effort. Some hope the reintroduction of the alligator gar will help curtail the exploding numbers of Asian carp. “We don’t think it will be any kind of a silver bullet,” said Fischer. “But of course we will certainly monitor Illinois efforts from a biological standpoint.”