PORT CLINTON — It was a representative from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources on the phone recently when Mike Pusateri picked up the call at his taxidermy shop here. The message was urgent, and high energy.
Their biologists had netted a mammoth 62-pound bighead Asian carp from a pond in Chicago, and they were sending the big fish to Pusateri to have it mounted for display.
When his phone rang the next day, it was the Illinois DNR again, telling him to cancel that previous order. They had just netted an 82-pound bighead in a different pond, so the frozen package headed to Ohio would be considerably larger.
“This thing is a monster,” Pusateri said about the 54-inch behemoth that came from Flatfoot Lake, a 19-acre borrow pit pond on Chicago’s south side, in Beaubien Woods Forest Preserve, adjacent to I-94.
“It’s a pretty scary looking fish, especially when you think about the damage these things could do if they take over the Great Lakes,” said Pusateri, who has become the defacto expert on making Asian carp taxidermy mounts.
He has crafted modest-sized Asian carp mounts for a long list of agencies in the United States and Canada since producing the first ones four years ago. Those filled a request from veteran charter captain Mike Matta, who wanted the visual impact of the carp for a display that visited various ports around the Great Lakes.
Pusateri said Illinois is planning on putting this latest mega carp on display in one of the state buildings and will likely order more replicas to exhibit elsewhere, driving home the graphic image of the size this threat to the Great Lakes can achieve.
Asian carp were brought to this country about 40 years ago to control algae in catfish farms and sewage treatment operations in the South. When major floods in the 1980s washed the carp into nearby streams and waterways, they quickly made their way into the Mississippi River system, and they have been on the move ever since, often dominating areas that once held native species.
Bighead, which can reach 100 pounds, and silver carp, known for frantically jumping from the water at the sound of boat motors, are the most prolific and widespread of the invasive Asian carp species. They present the most serious threat to waterways they reach.
The mammoth bighead carp that was netted in Flatfoot Lake likely has a different origin, however, since the lake is land-locked.
“We have a theory that this could have been there historically, as a result of catfish stocking that has taken place there over the years,” said Kevin Irons, the Aquaculture and Aquatic Nuisance Species Program Manager for the Illinois DNR.
Irons said that for decades Flatfoot and a number of other urban ponds in the Chicago area had been regularly stocked with catfish and sunfish. The Asian carp could have been mixed in with the tiny catfish and sunfish, which were likely imported from fish rearing operations in Arkansas, but the potential suppliers of contaminated shipments of fish have since gone out of business.
The 82-pound giant is not the first bighead carp to come from Flatfoot, a relatively small piece of water which is about five miles from Lake Michigan, but only 1,000 feet from the Little Calumet River, which connects to Lake Michigan. In a December, 2011, report, the Illinois DNR noted that it had removed 14 large bighead carp from Flatfoot Lake that fall via electro-shocking and netting, and that each of the fish weighed in excess of 48 pounds.
Just a week later, three more bigheads were removed through similar methods, and two of them weighed 76 pounds, with the third weighing 80 pounds. The report stated that no additional bighead carp were believed to remain in the pond.
“We thought we had them all out of there,” Irons said. He added that the bighead carp removed from Flatfoot Lake are likely 10-20 years old. Irons said a number of other land-locked Chicago area ponds and lakes have been searched in an effort “to exercise maximum precaution.”
Notre Dame biologist Christopher Jerde, part of the team that developed the environmental DNA or “eDNA” method of detecting the presence of Asian carp through the examination of water samples, said Flatfoot Lake was one place in the Chicago area where eDNA testing had indicated Asian carp were present.
“One of my biggest concerns at this point is that this is a small, shallow pond — really an ideal lake when you are trying to find big fish and remove them — but some were still missed,” he said. “If they are that difficult to capture and remove from a pond this size, how would they ever get them out of the Great Lakes.”