Can we eat our way out of the Asian carp invasion?

The US federal government starts taking concerted action to keep a very aggressive fish away from the Great Lakes. Some restaurateurs offer another way to fight the problem.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

In recent years, officials, biologists and fishermen alike have been concerned about the advance of the Asian carp, an invasive species of fish that has been steadily advancing up the Mississippi River toward the Great Lakes watershed.

Asian carp, with their voracious appetites, can grow up to 100 pounds, crowding out native fish species. Photo Credit: Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee

These large fish, which typically weigh 30 to 40 pounds, escaped from a fish farm in the 1980s, and are not pleasant creatures by any means. They are voracious eaters that crowd out native fish from their freshwater habitats, not by eating smaller fish, but by gobbling up their food supply -- plankton, or algae and other microscopic organisms. The Asian carp are known to jump ten feet in the air, and even across the entire lengths of boats, injuring people in the process.

The Asian Carp Control Website, run by the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee, describes how they got here and the havoc they are already wreaking:

“'Asian carp' refers to several species of related fish originating from Asia. Two species of Asian carp—the bighead and silver carp—were imported into the southern United States to keep aquaculture facilities clean and to provide fresh fish for fish markets. Bighead and silver carp escaped into the wild in the 1980s and have been swimming northward ever since, overwhelming the Mississippi and Illinois River systems. In some areas, the Asian carp now comprise more than 95% of the biomass."

The Great Lakes are at serious risk from Asian carp. An artificial connection—known as the Chicago Waterway System—connects the Great Lakes to the Illinois River, which connects to the Mississippi River. This waterway system provides the pathway for Asian carp to enter the Great Lakes. As the Asian Carp Control site explains:

"The presence of Asian carp in the Great Lakes could cause declines in abundances of native fish species. Asian carp will compete with native fish for food—native fish like ciscos, bloaters, and yellow perch, which in turn, are fed upon by predator species including lake trout and walleye (Hansen 2010). Under the conditions found in some areas of the Great Lakes (such as water temperature and food abundance), Asian carp could outnumber all other native species, as is happening in parts of Illinois, Mississippi, and Missouri Rivers.... The establishment of Asian carps could cause great economic impact to the Great Lakes’ commercial, tribal, and sport fisheries, today valued at more than $7 billion annually."

The fish has been found in Lake Camulet, which is within miles of Lake Michigan. The Army Corps of Engineers has put up an electrified blockade across the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which connects to the Illinois River downstream. This is the primary waterway connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River, and there's even been talk of blocking the canal altogether -- an option not favored by shippers. In 2009, water in the Chicago River was poisoned in an effort to clear out invasive species while the electrified barrier underwent maintenance.

In December, the Obama administration released a multi-prong plan to fight the fish's advance. The plan outlines a framework in which federal, state, and local agencies, working together as the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee (ACRCC), would seek solutions to prevent the Asian carp from establishing populations in the Great Lakes. The framework seeks to transition from a single point of defense (e.g., electric barriers) to a multi‐tiered defense (e.g., fishery management, structures, biological, etc.).

Some entrepreneurial restaurateurs have come up with another way to fight the invasion -- to offer up Asian Carp as a delicacy. As the Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal reports, one restaurant chef, Jimmy Wade, is offering up a "invasivore" dinner menu. It is said that the Asian carp is quite delicious, and is indeed a popular item in China. Wade's menu will feature Carp Cakes, Smoked Carp Steak and Carp Napoleon.

However, the critics of this approach say if it were to catch on, it may encourage more fish farming of Asian Carp, thereby increasing the risk in the long run.

Is releasing human predators on an unwanted species an effective way to eradicate the species?  After all, humans almost drove the buffalo to extinction in North America. Why not turn our energy and palates on a species that we don't want around anyway? Is "If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em" a viable option?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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