PEORIA — You may have read reports about the "toothy giant that can grow longer than a horse and heavier than a refrigerator" roaming Illinois waterways, but the story, like so many tales of fish, seems to have outgrown its origin.
A recent Associated Press report that touted reintroduced alligator gar as a "potentially potent weapon" against Asian carp was picked up by dozens of news organizations nationwide, including Yahoo News, Field and Stream and the Los Angeles Times, which ran the story online under headlines like "Here's how this giant, freaky looking fish could save the Great Lakes." But biologists say the hubbub may have oversold the impressive fish's utility as they try to set the record straight.
"Now we're trying to reel it back in, and I don't know if we'll have any success," said Dan Stephenson, chief of fisheries at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
In short: "The reintroduction of the alligator gar had nothing to do with an attempt to control the population of Asian carp."
The alligator gar, a prehistoric fish that has the ability to grow to massive lengths and boast rows of impressive teeth, are indeed back in Illinois after 50 years of being classified as regionally extinct, which is exciting news, biologists say, but would not be very effective for invasive species control for several reasons, not least among them the Asian carp's prolific breeding abilities and alligator gar's lack thereof.
Asian carp can spawn up to three times per year and, once hatched, grow very quickly. Within a few months they'll have outgrown most of their potential predatory threats.
Alligator, gar on the other hand, which are about the size of mosquitoes when they're brought to hatcheries in southern Illinois, are usually released in selective locations when they're about 10 to 12 inches long. While they'll grow fast at first, they take decades to reach the mammoth, six- to eight-feet lengths that have earned them the title of "River Monster," and females won't reach sexual maturity until they're 11 years old.
Even if they did achieve a sizable reproductive population — which is a big if, Stephenson adds — a few hundred or even few thousand gar would have little to no impact on a fish that is regularly harvested by the boatload.
"If we get one or two fish per river mile we'll be excited," Stephenson said.
One thing that Asian carp and alligator gar have in common is both have a branding issue, though they've affected the fish populations in very different ways.
Asian carp's association with its bottom-feed brethren have made it difficult for developers to market in any kind of palatable way. The alligator gar, however, were perhaps betrayed by their fearsome appearance and its comparison to one of America's fiercest predators. Seen as a threat to sport fish populations, alligator gar were purged from Illinois waterways by fisherman and state agencies alike.
That threat, combined with a loss of the backwater habitat alligator gar need for spawning, led its territory to shrink to a few states in the southern U.S. and Mexico.
But biologists say that the predator poses no threat to humans, little to sport fish, dining almost exclusively on gizzard shad, and hasn't earned it's dangerous reputation.
"We already have 50- to 100-pound fish floating around in the river anyway, but people don't seem to concerned about blue catfish. This one just happens to have pointy teeth and a big smile," said Jason DeBoer, a large river fisheries ecologist at the Illinois River Biological Station near Havana.
Despite its menacing rows of teeth, imposing size and designation as an apex predator, DeBoer laughs off an attempt to brand alligator gar as the Great White of America's freshwaters, pointing out that even through they can grow to massive lengths, they don't have particularly wide mouths or throats, and aren't even capable of eating fish bigger than about a foot long.
But even if they aren't this biological weapon that the sensational headlines might imply, reintroducing them in Illinois waters still is a big deal, biologists say, because it's an opportunity to restore part of the region's original ecosystem, and just because these fish are, in addition to being misunderstood by many, just really cool creatures.
Your best bet at seeing a sizable alligator gar in Illinois is in Powerton Lake, just south of Pekin, where the stocked population has grown quicker than other locations because the fish can feed year-round in the water warmed by the nearby power plant.
Laura Nightengale is the Journal Star's health and lifestyle reporter. She can be reached at 686-3181 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lauranight.