Illinois hoping our stomach will be next weapon against invasive Asian Carp
In Illinois, the battle to keep Asian Carp out of Lake Michigan and the entire Great Lakes continues. Their hope is that food pantries can be an important ally in the effort to keep the fish at bay.
In the Midwest, there's an invasive fish species that is wreaking havoc on the Mississippi River system.
Now, the Asian Carp, is poised to threaten the entire Great Lakes and scientists are working desperately to find ways to stop it. If not, the commercial fishing industry in the Great Lakes — in fact, many of the native fish species that live in the lakes — may die, crowded out by these invaders.
Kevin Irons runs the aquatic nuisance species program for the state of Illinois, which is ground zero for efforts to keep the Asian Carp as far down the Des Plaines River from Lake Michigan as they possibly can. Over 100 years ago, the city of Chicago build a canal to pump its waste away from the city and its water source, Lake Michigan, via the Des Plaines River.
Now, that canal could be the route the Asian carp takes to Lake Michigan.
"Even though we’re close to Chicago, you feel kind of remote. You can see why people want to spend some time out here," he said. "You may also get a sense for why people are so concerned about Asian carp."
A 30-foot service road is all that separates the fish from the canal.
Two Asian Carp varieties, the bighead and the silver, are the most proficient water invaders. They exist on nearly every continent, are highly adaptive, reproduce quickly and eat a ton of plankton.
The biologists are trying to sound the alarm now to get people motivated to take action.
"The pictures, the movies have been so valuable to us. If I say there’s a lot of fish, what does that mean? But if you see a picture of 100 fish jumping out of the water around a boat, oh, that’s a lot of fish," he said.
Asian carp were brought to the United States with the best of intentions. In the mid 1970s catfish farmers in the south imported Asian carp to eat the scum off their ponds.
Flooding washed them into the Mississippi River and from there they headed north.
Illinois is using electrified barriers, vigilant river patrols and DNA sweeps to try and keep the fish away. The federal government is even involved.
Now, experts are trying to turn to a new tool to combat the invaders: our stomachs.
"Commercial fishing may be that one tool that can remove enough fish - I mean millions of pounds, consistently," Irons said.
So far, though, that's been unpopular because Americans are not fond of American Carp. Asian Carp have been lumped in with their strong-smell, bottom-feeding American cousins.
"Carp’s a 4-letter word," Irons said. "I’ve eaten it several times. It’s very good - one of the best tasting fish products, maybe, in the world."
For starters, the state is trying to get the fish onto food pantry shelves around the country.
Tracy Smith, the director of Feeding Illinois, said this may be one way to combat a rise in demand at food pantries nationwide.
"Every single pantry that we’ve walked into has said, 'look at my empty shelves.' This is a crisis situation," he said.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources already partners with deer hunters to provide 100,000 pounds of venison to food pantries. But that's small potatoes in comparison to the 127 million pounds distributed across Illinois.
But it's not as simple as shipping the fish to food pantries in bulk and expecting it to solve all of the problems.
"There’s an education component. Is it something that clients are going to accept? The worst thing is to have food that people don’t want to eat," Smith said.
Feeding Illinois, with help from the DNR and the cooking world, gave food bank clients a taste of carp cuisine.
Susan Harper was among those who participated and said it tasted almost like salmon.
"I thought it was great. I think it’s something that they could serve at A Safe Haven, and it’ll bring a lot of protein and some taste into our menu. I think it’d be a wonderful idea," she said.
Smith said the biggest hurdle to using it at food pantries is that so far, no one is using it commercially. To get it to food pantries will require fishmen, meat processors, distributors and others.
"You also have to pay people well enough that it's worth it for them to get involved in the process," he said.
So far, Illinois officials are still trying to figure out how they could make it happen.
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