Photo by Kevin Irons.

February 1, 2023

Illinois Commercial Fishing Trends

A black and white photo of a a past commercial fishing boat on a body of water. One fisherman near the back of the boat stands and pulls in a net with fish. The other fisherman sits near the front of the boat and watches the progress of the first fisherman.
In the past commercial fishing entailed fishing from small, 16-foot foots possessing small motor, and anglers working a section of the river approximately 10 miles in length using five or fewer nets. Photo courtesy of Illinois State Museum.

Commercial fishermen are like farmers of the river, both are built on hard and often dangerous work and require long hours regardless of weather conditions to provide food for not only their families, but also families throughout the United States.

Commercial fishing has historically been family oriented and a way of life, with knowledge, skills and equipment passed on through generations. The number of commercial fishing licenses sold in Illinois has decreased more than 50 percent in the last 40 years and full-time commercial fishermen are becoming a thing of the past. There seems to be some generational differences. In 1950, there were 229 full time commercial fishermen. By 1985, Illinois had only 70 full time commercial fishermen; by 2020 only 30 full time commercial fishermen existed. While the number of fishermen has declined, the pounds of fish harvested hasn’t, largely due to the shift to improved equipment, bigger boats and the addition of Asian carp harvest. Increased demand due to branding of Copi for human consumption has contributed.

Much like family farms, local fish markets run by commercial fishing families are now giving way to larger operations in which larger boats possessing faster motors that can cover larger areas, all to maximize volume of fish harvested to make a profit.

A color photograph of a present day commercial fishing boat on a freshwater river. Four fisherman are in the boat, and one near the front of the boat pulls in a net. In the background is the edge of a woodland.
Today’s commercial fishermen operate using bigger boats equipped with larger motors. Their boats are full of nets and net pullers and each boat will cover an entire river pool or a distance of 40 miles. Now the Little Grassy Hatchery Manager for IDNR, John Ziegler assists commercial fishers pull in a seine. Photo courtesy of Kevin Irons.

Just like in farming, the cost of equipment, fuel, and harvesting continues to rise, but the average wholesale price of fish per pound has remained stable since 1980. Throughout the years, a few groups of fish—namely carp, buffalo and catfish—have accounted for the majority of harvest. While harvest of native fish, such as buffalo and channel catfish, has remained stable, carp harvest has increased and shifted from common carp to invasive Asian carp. Asian carp generally refer to four species of carp from Asia—bighead carp, silver carp, grass carp and black carp. When processed as human food these fish can be found as Copi in markets throughout the Midwest, By 2007, Asian carp became the most harvested fish within Illinois rivers. Commercial fishing has become one of the most effective tools in slowing the spread of Asian carp, utilized by several Midwest states to help moderate the abundance of this invasive species.

Official reports of annual harvest have consistently been submitted to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) since 1950, allowing the IDNR to determine how the fisheries in our commercial waters are doing. This data allows IDNR to protect Illinois resources for both commercial and recreational fishermen. A study within the Mississippi River Basin found that commercial harvest has not negatively influenced fish populations or recreational fishing and that this cooperative management has resulted in consistently productive fisheries throughout the Mississippi River Basin over time. Commercial fishermen have historically been a major part in providing the data for management and conservation, through cooperation and fishing reports. Recently IDNR has been working with the fishermen to ensure harvest of invasive species and looking at trends throughout the river fisheries.

The IDNR realizes the importance of the harvest information received from commercial fishermen and would like to increase our interaction with fishermen to continue gaining the data needed to ensure the fisheries resources of our rivers will continue to provide opportunities for all.

A chart showing the reported harvest in pounds of 5 key commercial fish species including buffalo, channel catfish, common carp, grass carp, and Asian carp from 1986 to 2020. Overall pounds of Asian fish caught increases dramatically from 1998 to 2020.
Chart courtesy of Kevin Irons.

Sara Tripp recently accepted the Commercial Fishing Biologist position with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) in the summer of 2021. She graduated from Southern Illinois University and received her Master’s degree in 2007. Prior to joining the IDNR, Tripp worked on large Midwestern rivers in Indiana, Kentucky and Missouri, with a focus on commercial harvest and research on commercial species. Her hobbies include hunting and fishing. She is working with commercial fishermen in Illinois to continue a positive relationship with the IDNR and investigate to some current topics among states regarding trophy catfish and paddlefish.

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Submit a question for the author

Question: I am looking to stock my 3 acre carp lake with 10,000 – 20,000 lbs. of carp. Do you know any commercial fishermen that I could buy directly from and pickup.

Thank you

Question: Where can I get a list of commercial fishermen that sell their fish?