If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Eat ’Em


Asian carp is an invasive species that’s believed to be capable of wiping out all native fisheries if it ever reaches the Great Lakes. Electric fences and other devices have been successfully employed for years to keep them from entering Lake Michigan. Now there’s a new plan about to be unveiled: just eat them!

The Asian carp species — namely silver, bighead, grass and black carp — are voracious plankton feeders. The bighead, for example, can consume 100 pounds a day. The potential damage to the food chain in the Great Lakes fishery, with an annual economic impact of $7 billion, would likely be catastrophic.

Now a plan is being readied to show that the carp are edible — that is, if you can get past the fact that they are filled with small bones and don’t make for great fillets. But if the idea can be sold to the public that carp are tasty, it would mean more anglers would remove tons of the invasive fish from Illinois rivers.

Asian carp were first imported from China to the United States in the late 1960s to control algae blooms in fish-farm ponds and sewage lagoons. Sadly, floods allowed the carp to escape into the Mississippi River system, and their populations took off.

So far, the steady movement of the carp toward the Great Lakes has been stopped in Illinois. In fact, to contain the Asian carp’s advance, electrical barriers are already employed, and more are planned for the Des Plaines River 26 miles downstream from Chicago and the gateway to Lake Michigan. The latest planned barrier will use electricity and screens of air bubbles to keep the carp at bay. The projected cost is more than $775 million, but it would protect a $7 billion annual fishery.

The big question is whether Americans can be sold an image that carp are good eating. “It's been hard to get the human consumption part of this because of the four-letter word — carp,” says Kevin Irons, assistant chief of fisheries for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

It won’t be the first time a legitimate attempt has been made to change the image of carp. In Ohio, there was a multiyear campaign to rename Lake Erie’s carp “silver bass.” A television reporter joked that it’s like putting lipstick on pig. The renaming effort failed.

Make no mistake: Fear for the Great Lakes native fishery is well-founded. Researchers examined two decades of studies on the Mississippi River and confirmed that Asian carp have triggered major declines in such fish as yellow perch and crappie. So perhaps we can eat our way out of this problem.

Keith Matheny, writing in the Detroit Free Press, said a media blitz is expected to kick off in June aimed at changing the carp’s image. A proposed new name for the fish is a highly guarded secret, but it will be introduced to open the campaign. Matheny added that the campaign will emphasize that Asian carp are “flaky, tasty, organic, sustainable, low in mercury, and rich in protein and omega-3 fatty acids.”

Meanwhile, the electric barrier planned for the Des Plaines River is seven or more years away. If large quantities of carp can be harvested to meet consumer appetites, it will be a major step in protecting the Great Lakes fishery. Let’s hope for success.



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