The first time Chad Pregracke saw an Asian carp leap out of the Illinois River he laughed. Eager to share the joke, he took a boatload of people out on the river. As if on cue, carp flew out of the water–to everyone’s amusement. But then a fish hit one of the passengers square in the mouth and nearly knocked her out of the boat. Pregracke had to take the woman to the hospital, where she got seven stitches in her lip.

That was back in 2003, and since then Pregracke, the 30-year-old founder of Living Lands and Waters, which has removed more than two million pounds of trash from various rivers, has been hit by jumping carp numerous times himself–during one boat ride he got smacked by ten. He researched the carp and learned about how two species–the bighead and the silver, both large, aggressive, and fast breeding with voracious appetites–had been washed out of Arkansas fish-farm ponds into the Mississippi in the 80s. A mature bighead can get up to 35 inches long and weigh 90 pounds; a mature silver–the one that jumps, up to 10 feet vertically and 20 feet horizontally–can grow to 50 inches and 110 pounds. In the 90s both spread rapidly up the Mississippi and into the Illinois and have now been spotted within 50 miles of Chicago. They’ve devastated the fishing industry along the way, and if they get into Lake Michigan they’ll wreak havoc on the $4.5 billion Great Lakes industry.

Last summer Pregracke decided he had to do something about the carp. “They move in and move the other fish out,” he says. “They’re just straight-up dangerous.”

Until then Pregracke’s obsession had been trash. He’d grown up in East Moline on the banks of the Mississippi. During high school and college he followed his older brother, a commercial fisherman, onto the river and spent his summers diving for clams. He was annoyed by all the garbage he saw along the river bottom and banks, especially when it was in places he didn’t expect to find it. A born salesman and showman, he persuaded Alcoa to give him a grant, and in 1997 he removed 45,000 pounds of trash from the Mississippi all by himself.

A year later he founded Living Lands and Waters and began organizing volunteers to help him haul tires, cans, bottles, refrigerators, and shopping carts out of the river. He says he never wasted any energy wondering how the trash got where it was. “Regardless of how it gets there, it needs to be picked up,” he says. “If you go out there and set the example, it catches on.”

Over the years his efforts impressed plenty of sponsors, including 3M, Anheuser-Busch, Archer Daniels Midland, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the National Geographic Society. In 2004 Cargill, Koch Industries, the Argosy Foundation, and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency each donated more than $50,000. Living Lands and Waters now has an annual budget of more than $650,000, and Pregracke and a paid crew of seven live on a tugboat and a barge that doubles as a floating garbage truck. They organize cleanups along the Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, Potomac, and Anacostia rivers, and they offer one-day educational workshops along the way. They count more than 25,000 volunteers and say thousands of teachers have attended their workshops, up to 800 at a single session.

Pregracke and the volunteers take as much of the trash as they can to recycling centers and deposit the rest in landfills. A select few treasures decorate the Living Lands barge: a plastic Canada goose body with a Chucky doll head sits atop a collection of bowling balls, and signs like SEA LAND BAR and WASH YOUR HANDS BEFORE LEAVING THIS ROOM line the walls of the living quarters. Geoff Manis, the volunteer coordinator, remembers that a reporter once called to say a dead cow was lodged in a dam near the Quad Cities and several state agencies had refused to touch it. “It reeked to high heaven,” he says. Pregracke and one of his crew wound up removing the carcass while three TV crews and several reporters watched.

After Hurricane Katrina, Pregracke briefly branched out into emergency relief. He and a crew of 17 took the barge south and cleaned and repaired 70 homes around New Orleans.

By then Pregracke’s story had appeared on PBS and in Smithsonian and Reader’s Digest. He’d been given awards by, among others, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and Governor Rod Blagojevich. And he’d inspired Lenny Kravitz’s song “Can We Find a Reason?”

“Environmental rock star,” says Tammy Becker, Living Lands’ education coordinator.

“Heartland heartthrob,” says Julie Rowan, another crew member, then asks Becker, “Wasn’t he one of People magazine’s top 50 bachelors?”

“No,” says Becker. “One of Biography Magazine’s top people to look out for.”

Pregracke demurs. “The movement existed,” he says. “I’m not leading a movement. The movement leads itself.” He prefers to think of what he does as an adventure. “In some ways we’re kind of like Gypsies,” he says. “Gypsies with a purpose.”

When Pregracke and his Living Lands crew steered their barge into the Illinois last summer they hadn’t been on the river for a year. As they traveled along it organizing cleanups, Pregracke was shocked by how many more Asian carp there were. He says that during one 15-minute stretch he must have seen a thousand jump out of the water.

He talked to some of the local commercial fishermen, including one named Oliver Ready. Ready lives in Grafton, where the Illinois meets the Mississippi, and called it quits last year after 38 years because of the carp. He says he and other fishermen warned politicians and government officials that a crisis was looming, but no one did anything. “Now they’re starting to listen to us, because there’s too damn many of them,” he says. “They’re beginning to understand it now.”

According to Ed Britton, district manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Savanna, Illinois, Asian carp have become a concern only in the past five years. “These Asian carp are much heartier than our native species,” he says. “They reproduce faster, eat more, grow bigger. They can outcompete our native species. They can tolerate colder temperatures. They can tolerate higher currents. It’s an ecological disaster.”

Private fish farmers in the south first imported Asian carp to this country in 1972 to eat the algae and other vegetation that clouded ponds in catfish farms. According to Kevin Irons, an ecologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, the bighead eats plankton and aquatic insects, and the silver eats phytoplankton. During floods in the 80s both species were washed out of the ponds and into the Mississippi. Britton says they spread rapidly in the lower stretches of the river because there weren’t any locks or dams to slow them down, but during floods in the 90s they moved upriver when gates were lifted.

Irons says he saw his first Asian carp, a bighead, in the Illinois River in 1991, and as he monitored the river that year he caught just one. Through 1999 he and other staff caught at most one or two a year. Then in 2000 they caught 1,500. In one sample of fish taken from the southern end of the river 98 percent were Asian carp. Irons says so far he hasn’t noticed a significant drop in other species of fish because of the Asian carp. “Some commercial fishermen think the other species are getting thinner,” he says. “I’m not sure we’re seeing that statistically. Certainly it makes a lot of sense.”

Jeff Rach, a fishery biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, says the effect of the Asian carp on other species can’t be evaluated until their numbers get bigger. “And then it’s too late,” he says. “The bottom line is you don’t want these critters brought into the system.” But it’s too late for that too, so he’s now evaluating two pesticides that could be used to control the carp: they would kill off all the species of fish in areas where they were used, but after the compounds broke down the areas would be restocked with desirable fish. “Personally, I feel once they’re in the system you’re never going to get rid of them,” he says. “You can only learn to live with them and control them. They aren’t ever going to get rid of the Asian carp–they’re so prolific.”

Illinois officials hoped they could at least keep the two species out of the Great Lakes, and four years ago they built a temporary electric barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal near Romeoville. According to the U.S. EPA, the barrier has proved effective: only one tagged native carp is known to have passed through it. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has now finished the first half of a permanent barrier just downstream, and it’s supposed to start operating in May. Even half a barrier will be more powerful than the temporary one, but it’s not clear where the estimated $6.5 million to finish the project will come from or who’s going to pay the power bill, which could run $20,000 a month.

Pregracke says the barrier is “a good attempt, and any attempt is good in my book. But I don’t think it’s going to work.” For one thing, it won’t prevent the fish or their eggs from hitching a ride on a boat.

Ready believes the barrier is too little too late. “They think they’re not in the Great Lakes yet, but I’ve got news for them,” he says. “They’re there. They just haven’t found them yet.”

Asian carp are filter feeders, sucking in water and straining out whatever’s edible, so they can’t be caught on a hook. But they’re easily snagged in nets, which makes them a menace to commercial fishermen. “They tear your equipment up,” says Ready. “They’re so big and stout–aggressive fish. They dig right through a net.” Especially the bigheads.

Ready gave up fishing when he began netting nothing but Asian carp. For several years the carp had been overtaking the fish he wanted to catch, catfish and buffalo. “When them Asian carp showed up there got to be more of them than fish we could sell,” he says. “You’d waste half of your day picking them out of your nets.” He threw most of them away but trucked some of them home, covered them with sawdust, and after a few days buried them in his tomato garden.

Rob Maher, manager of the commercial fishing program at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, says Asian carp have devastated the commercial fishing industry. There is a small market for the carp, but fishermen get only about 10 cents a pound for it, which Ready says isn’t worthwhile–he could get up to 60 cents a pound for catfish and 30 cents a pound for buffalo.

Pregracke, whose brother still works on the Mississippi, empathized with the fishermen, and soon he had a new message for politicians and government officials: create a bigger market for Asian carp so fishermen can afford to catch them. “You could turn a huge problem for the river, a huge problem for people, into a positive,” he says. “And what else can you do about it? You can’t kill them all off. But you can keep their numbers at bay, and you can turn them into a viable food source.”

Pregracke discussed possible uses of the carp with fishermen and fish processors, including Mike Schafer, owner of Schafer Fisheries, the largest wholesale supplier of local fish in the midwest. “In America the carp is looked at as trash fish,” says Schafer. “But in Europe and Oriental countries it’s not looked at that way.” A few years ago he decided there might be a market for it in this country’s Asian communities. “We developed the market,” he says. “It wasn’t there before we were there.” Last year his company–located in Thomson, Illinois, on the Mississippi north of Moline–shipped 1.75 million pounds of the carp to outlets in the U.S., a jump of 50 percent over the previous year.

But that’s still too small a market to put a dent in the carp’s numbers, so Pregracke compiled a list of uses that could broaden the market, including extracting the oil to use as fertilizer, stripping the bone-dense fish to make breaded fish patties, and selling the heads overseas, where they’re considered a delicacy. Schafer already processes fish parts his company used to throw out into organic fertilizer and could do the same with the carp remains. And he thinks that if he had the equipment to turn the fish into patties he could sell ten million pounds a year to institutions such as schools and nursing homes.

Ready has tried Asian carp. “They wasn’t that bad,” he says. “If I didn’t have anything to eat at all I’d be tickled to death to have that stuff. They’re not a salmon patty–don’t get me wrong. But they’re very close to it. They have a taste of their own. You could get used to them.”

Pregracke insists the meat is good. Asian carp, being low on the food chain, also happen to be cleaner than a lot of other local fish. Pollutants have been found in them, but the levels have always been well below what the FDA considers safe.

In January state senator Mike Jacobs, a Democrat from East Moline, introduced a bill requesting state funds for a private-public venture to develop a bigger carp market. It would appropriate $750,000 for the Department of Natural Resources, which would then be turned over as a grant to a private company for buying equipment to process the carp. So far no vote has been scheduled.

Jacobs says he didn’t take the issue seriously until Pregracke cornered him. “He really worked on me,” he says. “Now my problem is to help important people see the wisdom of Chad’s view. I know this is an odd political issue, this is not really a sexy issue. But it is highly important.”

Jacobs has tried eating the carp and says it’s “pretty good,” similar to pollack, though he doesn’t think people are going to be eager to eat something called Asian carp. He’s lobbying to rename it the Illini sole. He’s also championing the idea of selling the meat to Illinois prisons, pushing to get carp processors on the state’s list of approved vendors for food supplied to prisoners. “I think they’re an obvious market because they’re a captive audience,” he says.

“That would create a market,” says Pregracke.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): [photos/Charles Steck, Duane Chapman/USGS, Roger Sneed.