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Asian carp invasion: Can we fish our way out of the problem?

As urgency rises over need to halt the migration of invasive Asian carp into the Great Lakes, a new solution comes forward: Eat them. Asian carp could anchor a lucrative fishing industry, some officials and biologists suggest. 

By Richard MertensCorrespondent / November 4, 2011

Students lined up for a taste of Asian carp at Christ the King Jesuit College Preparatory High School in Chicago on Sept. 22. The state of Illinois has been looking at ways to promote the fish – an abundant invasive species – as food.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

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Starved Rock State Park, Ill.

Last spring in Little Rock, Ark., officials of the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force dined on one of the biggest nuisances of them all: Asian carp.

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"It was very good," says Ron Brooks, head of fisheries in Kentucky.

Carp native to China escaped from Southern fish hatcheries in the 1970s, where they were being cultivated to eat algae in fishponds. They've been spreading ever since. They are now found in much of the Mississippi River Basin, from Louisiana to Minnesota. In some places – such as the Illinois River downstream from Starved Rock State Park – 9 out of 10 fish are Asian carp.

Stopping them before they reach the Great Lakes is the aim of a national campaign involving a broad range of biologists, state and federal agencies, and even the White House. This year, the US Army Corps of Engineers turned on a third electric barrier in a shipping canal near Chicago to halt the carp's incursion. Officials are also trying to identify and block other potential links between the Mississippi and the Great Lakes, as they did last year by erecting a quarter-mile-long mesh fence in a marsh in northeastern Indiana. Meanwhile, researchers are hunting for chemical or genetic methods of disrupting carp reproduction.

Many people say there's a better way to control Asian carp: Eat them. Government officials, university researchers, and businesses are working to build a commercial fishing industry capable of harvesting enough Asian carp to reduce their numbers and stop their expansion.

"There's no other short-term method that we have that's likely to have any substantial effect on these populations," says Duane Chapman, a carp expert with the US Geological Survey in Columbia, Mo.

Indeed, some biologists doubt that current efforts are enough to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. Promoters of commercial fishing say that "taking the battle downstream" would both help states where the carp are already established and reduce the chances that the fish will migrate into the Great Lakes.

Fishermen have already been catching Asian carp for at least a decade, and in growing numbers. Steve McNitt, sales director at Schafer Fisheries in Thomson, Ill., the Midwest's largest fish processor, says his company bought 20 million pounds last year – much of which was minced for domestic use or exported whole to Brazil, Israel, and China.

Orion Briney, who fishes almost exclusively for Asian carp on the Illinois River, says his two crews can bring in as much as 25,000 pounds of carp a day using nets and 30-foot aluminum boats. "It's been good for us," he says.

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.

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