The alligator gar is one of the ugliest fish you'll ever lay your eyes on. With a head that looks like an alligator and a size that can rival that of a horse, it would no doubt be hard to think of a situation where several Midwestern states would want this "river monster" to swim through their waters once more.
Yet, these states have found themselves in such a situation: the ever-looming threat of the Asian carp.
"What else is going to be able to eat those monster carp?" said Allyse Ferrara, who studies alligator gar at Nicholls State University in Louisiana. "We haven't found any other way to control them."
The Asian carp is an invasive species that was originally in the 1970s to help with catfish farms in Arkansas. However, nowadays, after swimming up north and infesting the waters of the Mississippi River, the fish has become something of a concern for anyone with any type of connection to the waters in the area. For biologists, the fear is that these rapidly-reproducing "garbage fish" will enter the Great Lakes and damage the ecosystem there beyond repair, while commercial fisherman fear the destruction of the $7 billion fishing industry their invasion will cause.
For what its worth, there have been some efforts to contain the Asian carp outbreak. Despite President Obama's objections, Congress allotted $300 million to a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a fund started in 2010 over concerns about the Asian carp. This money contributes to catching and netting efforts, an electric fence in the Illinois River near Chicago and the ongoing building of a "lock and dam" system by the U.S. Army Corps.
The latest of these efforts came back in May when a coalition of federal, state and local officials, companies and nonprofits completed a 7.5-foot earthen wall in Indiana that serves to separate rivers that Asian carp may use to swim into Lake Erie.
Of course, simply trying to cut off their routes of travel is only a temporary fix. The end goal is to eliminate these carp entirely, and the key is the alligator gar — the very species of fish that was mistakenly viewed as a "trash fish" that posed a threat to sport fish, and thus something worthy of complete eradication.
To that end, several Midwestern states have launched reintroduction programs for the alligator gar, and Illinois lawmakers passed a resolution earlier in July promising to protect the gar species already present in the state.
So, why the alligator gar? Unlike Asian carp, alligator gar pose no threat to humans (outside of their poisonous eyes and eggs) and they also have a taste for young carp — which, coincidentally, is the focus of this reintroduction plan, as the gar will target the carp before they can spawn.
However, having a plan is one thing, knowing it whether it will work is an entirely different matter; and unfortunately, not everyone is convinced this will be the solution people are looking for.
"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 hunters.
This isn't the first time biologists have used an endangered animal in order to stem the growth of an invasive species. For example, the Lake Erie Water Snake, another species native to the Midwest, recovered and left the Endangered Species list after it was used to combat the invasive round goby fish.