Asian Carp — Can We Eat Enough to Stop the Invasion?

Asian Carp — Can We Eat Enough to Stop the Invasion?

By Cheryl Kallio, Associate Director

I have gotten many emails and letters with suggestions on how to handle the Asian carp invasion. Thank you to those who have taken the time to share your thoughts. Your ideas constantly inspire our work!

One idea as a means to stop the Asian carp comes up frequently— eating them. Let’s explore this idea further. Many people suggest eating Asian carp is the best way for control. Indeed, some biologists (including myself) don’t think current efforts are enough to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. For example, the well known electrical barriers aimed at turning Asian carp away can only turn away fish larger than 5.4 inches, according to a 2009 Army Corps of Engineers Study. The small ones slip through. Additionally, the fact that the barriers need to be periodically turned off for maintenance logically confirms that electrical barriers, while they may slow down an Asian carp invasion, will not stop it. Could eating them stop Asian carp from reaching our Great Lakes?

Government officials, university researchers, and businesses are working to expand a commercial fishing industry capable of harvesting enough Asian carp to reduce their numbers in hopes of stopping their expansion. Fishermen have already been catching Asian carp for at least a decade, and in growing numbers. Schafer Fisheries in Thomson, Illinois, the Midwest’s largest fish processor, brought in 20 million pounds last year— much of which was minced for domestic use or exported whole to Brazil, Israel, and China. Illinois is also paying fishermen to remove Asian carp from waterways just south of Chicago. This effort has succeeded in reducing carp numbers at the leading edge of their expansion, says Kevin Irons of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Supporters of a carp industry say we could catch more—a lot more. The problem is what comes after the fish are caught. The Mississippi Basin, where the fish are being caught, lacks enough processing plants due to a long decline in commercial fishing, experts say. There’s also a shortage of markets. Because they look horrible and are very bony, it has been difficult to get Americans to eat Asian carp. Some officials have promoted the potential for exporting large quantities of carp to China, but the logistics are difficult—the fish need to be taken and frozen quickly at one of the few processing plants, the customers are very exacting about the quality, and the margins are slim.

Some biologists worry that creating a big Asian carp industry would create pressure to maintain carp populations, and possibly expand their populations to new places like the Great Lakes, not get rid of them. However, I think that increasing pressure to fish Asian carp is a viable, short term solution to slow down the invasion until a permanent solution can be implemented. I don’t think it is the long term solution. To date, the only permanent solution that would stop Asian carp from swimming into our Great Lakes is to break the connections and physically separate the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River basins.

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