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An Old Fashioned Strategy to Keep Asian Carp at Bay in the Great Lakes: Eat Them

July 26, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
To keep Asian carp, an invasive species, from taking over in the Great Lakes, scientists and fishermen are employing an simple strategy: Catch them and eat them. But they have found that there are some pragmatic issues -- as well as marketing issues -- to overcome. Ash-har Quraishi of WTTW Chicago reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now an update on an important fishing story in the Great Lakes region.

We have chronicled the problems that a particularly invasive species, Asian carp, have posed for the past few years. But now scientists are thinking it may be time to come up with a new solution.

Ash-Har Quraishi of WTTW Chicago reports.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: You definitely don’t want these voracious fish invading the Great Lakes, but now that they’re in the Illinois River and here to stay, scientists are wondering if there’s a profitable way to keep their populations in check.

This is Stratton State Park, about 60 miles southwest of Chicago.

VIC SANTUCCI, Illinois Department of Natural Resources: This is kind of like the battleground right here.

Americans have this mentality that they don't want to eat a bony product, they don't want to fight with it.James Schafer, general manager, Schafer Fisheries

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: It’s a story we have heard before.

VIC SANTUCCI: The fish are moving up from the Mississippi River into the Illinois and up towards the Great Lakes.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: But there’s an ironic twist to this doomsday story which could be solved by striking a delicate balance between economics and the environment.

Vic Santucci is the Asian carp specialist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

VIC SANTUCCI: Let them get the net out. We won’t try to scare the fish away.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: He and his team are evaluating whether the carp can be controlled the old-fashioned way, by catching them.

VIC SANTUCCI: They’re trying to drive fish into one of their commercial nets, and that’s contracted fishermen.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: 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.

VIC SANTUCCI: It’s really driven by free market principles, how much they can get for fish, how much it costs them to catch those fish and that type of thing. And then you need a market, you know, what can you do with the fish.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: Santucci says it’s a numbers game. Removing Asian carp from this population downstream prevents strays from making their way up toward the electric barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

This has been the Army Corps of Engineers’ last line of defense to block the Asian carp from invading Lake Michigan and all of the Great Lakes.

PHILIP WILLINK, John G. Shedd Aquarium: The consensus among scientists is that it works really, really well, but is probably not perfect. So if only a few Asian carp reach the electric barrier, it will probably repel them, but if thousands reach the electric barrier, some might slip through.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: Philip Willink, a senior research biologist at the John G. Shedd Aquarium, says the focus now needs to be on developing ways to prevent the fish from breeding near the electric barrier, because smaller juvenile fish are more likely to slip through the blockade.

PHILIP WILLINK: And one of the ways to do that is to sponsor commercial fisherman to go out there and try to catch as many as they can.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: Today, Gary Shaw is one of 10 commercial fishermen who’s allowed to fish these backwaters accompanied by state biologists.

GARY SHAW, commercial fisherman: Pound fishing with gill nets is the best way to get them right now.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: It’s not a bad haul.

MAN: He’s approaching 50, I would say.

MAN: Approaching 50, I would say that.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: According to the Army Corps of Engineers, Asian carp are capable of eating 20 percent to 120 percent of their body weight each day. But for commercial fishermen, big fish don’t always translate into big money.

PHILIP WILLINK: So, one of the problems with getting people interested in eating Asian carp is they happen to have a lot of bones in some strange places, so they’re really hard to filet.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: Add to that the common misperceptions that these fish don’t taste very good, because people assume they’re bottom-feeders, and you have a brand problem.

Schafer Fisheries in Thompson, Illinois, is addressing both those problems. Ever since the fish first turned up, the company has been looking for innovative ways to process and market Asian carp.

JAMES SCHAFER, Schafer Fisheries: On the fresh side, it would be the Asian community here in the U.S., and on the frozen side, it would be your ethnic communities around the world. The U.S. is the only country that doesn’t eat a carp.

Americans have this mentality that they don’t want to eat a bony product, they don’t want to fight with it.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: Schafer says that, once all the bones are removed, an Asian carp filet yields a relatively small and expensive four- to five-ounce portion that can’t compete with more economical alternatives, which is why they have turned to alternative methods of extracting the meat.

JAMES SCHAFER: Basically we run it through a mincing machine, which is a soft meat separator.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: The meat is then ground up, much like beef, and nothing is wasted.

So this removes all the bones and anything that you don’t want in the meat? So it separates it completely?

JAMES SCHAFER: Yes. Here’s even your tendons, you can see, and all your bones are in there.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: And this will go to eventually become fertilizer?

JAMES SCHAFER: This will be organic fertilizer.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: In a structure next to the fish processing plant, a large machine the Schafers call “The Human Body” digests the discarded bones, skins and tendons. Enzymes much like those found in the stomach break down the leftovers to create an organic liquid fertilizer.

And business has been good. Schafer says, over the last six years, processing of Asian carp has more than doubled to about 15 million pounds each year. And they are in the final stages of research and development on several new Asian carp-based products, including hot dogs.

It’s something the company hopes will open the door to Asian carp for many skeptical consumers.

JAMES SCHAFER: The toughest challenge, I would say, is just changing the perspective and just getting people to try — to try the fish.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: The company is fully invested in marketing Asian carp products like salami, bologna and even Asian carp jerky.

Here at the Taste of Chicago, the city’s largest food festival, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, working with its partners, has found a surefire way of getting people to try it, by grilling it up and giving it away.

DIRK FUCIK, Dirk’s Fish & Gourmet Shop: You mention the word carp, and people make a face first, and then I convince them to try it, and then they go into the store and buy it.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: Free food means long lines and open minds.

SANDRA MEHL, shopper: It’s really fantastic. It’s really well-seasoned and it’s moist. It’s yummy. People should try it.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: In case it catches on, scientists are also studying the long-term prospects of keeping up with potential demand.

GIRL: It tastes good.

WOMAN: It tastes good.

(LAUGHTER)

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: James Garvey is the director of the Center for Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences at Southern Illinois University.

JAMES GARVEY: See, you have got some nice resolution now.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: For the last year, Garvey has been sailing the Illinois River and literally counting Asian carp. Using sophisticated equipment much like the sonar on a submarine, the team is scanning the waters.

The SIU research is important for commercial fishermen, because knowing how many fish are in the water is a good indicator of how sustainable an Asian carp business could be in the long run.

JAMES GARVEY: If you’re not going to make any money off the fish, if there’s not enough fish out there, nobody’s going to invest any money in it.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: The hope is that, by the end of this year, researchers, government agencies and commercial fisheries will each have a better sense of their role in keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes by perhaps putting it on your plate.