Eating Invasives: Taste of Chicago Asian carp stunt underscores that we can't just "eat 'em all"
Getting attention at this town’s most high-profile food function, the Taste of Chicago, can be tough. But it’s not every day that folks attending the Taste get free grub. And even less often that they are served one of the most talked about and infamous species around: Asian carp. The agencies tasked with beating back the invasive fish got mounds of attention when they took the unusual step of distributing mini carp-wiches to the first 750 folks who would sample the sliders in a bid to help change public attitudes about carp consumption. It’s a savvy marketing move that garnered a lot of cute clips throughout the Great Lakes region. Sorry to be a killjoy, but the fun event also sends the wrong message. I’ve made the point in the past, but it is worth revisiting in light of the Taste of Chicago stunt: “If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em” implies we can win the battle with our knives and forks. We can’t.
And worse, moving forward the fishing solution creates an incentive to keep the carp around…
Chicago Tonight’s Ash-har Quraishi gets to the heart of the issue in a report he ran a couple nights ago:
In the backwaters of the Illinois River [an Illinois Department of Natural Resources team is] evaluating whether the carp can be controlled the old-fashioned way - by catching them.
The Catch-22 is that while the ultimate goal is to fish down the populations to prevent ecological damage, there have to be enough Asian carp left to make the business lucrative for commercial fishermen.
Silver and bighead carp are dangerously close to Lake Michigan. And while the electric barrier in place is keeping most at bay, it isn’t foolproof and some fish are likely getting through already. The newest research points to the possibility of a breeding population in the Great Lakes with less than two dozen fish slipping past. Simply put, we cannot eat all the fish fast enough to stave off the invasion.
But talking about fishing as the solution sounds great. It eliminates the uncomfortable talk of pricey (but more effective) solutions. And it has the ring of making lemon-aide out of lemons: we get to go fishing and sell the varmints to the Chinese at a profit, so everyone wins. But here's the problem: by developing a market for them---dealing with these species like a fishery as opposed to an invasive species that needs to be extirpated---we create a community of people with a keen interest in keeping the fish around for profit. That creates more conflict and dampens the urgency needed to win this fight.
Don’t get me wrong, we need to yank as many of these critters out of the water as quick as we can. In places infested with these buggers like Louisiana and along the Illinois River, we owe it to communities that have been robbed of access to their waterways to fish the heck out of the carp. It can help diminish the problem in those places and slow the forces pushing the dangerous fish towards the Great Lakes. But we cannot fall into the trap of calling this a solution. It’s not. We can put those yummy carp sandwiches in our toolbox (and our lunchbox---I’ve tasted carp and it is indeed good eatin’) to help deal with the problem, but only a separation of the Mississippi River system and Great Lakes can eliminate the superhighway that Asian carp and dozens of other invasive species unaffected by the electric barrier are using to move between North America’s greatest water resources.
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