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Oh Carp, An Alien Invasion

April 09, 2012 By Lisa Hu, Macalester College

Over the next several weeks Minnesota 2020 will run a series of columns focusing on environmental policy issues. This is part of our continuing collaboration with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department and its students.

I always thought the next ‘invasive species’ would appear in flying saucers or drag their undead feet around looking for brains.

Turns out, the biggest invasive threat to Minnesota today is already here. And odds are, you already know about it. As an outdoorsy bunch deriving immense pride from the wilderness, water, and nature of this Land of 10,000 Lakes, most Minnesotans likely have heard of the Asian carp issue. The carp are definitely here, and there are many varieties. The largest and most unpopular is the Asian carp, but the common carp is “probably the number one water quality problem in Minnesota,” states Professor Peter Sorenson of the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Minnesota. Sorenson is also the support for the proposed the Invasive Species Center at the University.

[According to Sorenson,] Carp are problematic for a few reasons: As bottom-feeders, they cloud water; they consume nearly half their body weight daily (Weekend America); and they reproduce rapidly. “In many lakes, up to three-quarters of the fish biomass is carp,” Sorenson continued. Carp could potentially drive native species to extinction. “If they get into the Great Lakes, there is concern they won't leave any food for game fish like bass and walleye,” said Steve Hirsch, director of the Ecological Resources Management Team at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Most scientists, policymakers, and citizens alike agree that the spread of Asian carp in particular must be curbed. Yet the specific methods are varied and piecemeal. The Land of 10,000 Lakes can hardly abandon its investment in the $7 billion fishing industry because of an ugly fish species. No, we must maintain and protect our clout in this vital economic sector.

So what are our options?

While the US Federal Government did pass the Non-indigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act of 1990 to help address carp, it is impossible to completely eradicate the carp populations. Also, as a relatively new problem, we lack tested technology or established programs to guide our treatment of the invasive species.

One solution to the carp issue is to change the way we think: Basically, we think carp are gross and ugly. However, more than 500,000 Minnesotans are on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly the food stamp program). The most logical solution is, regardless of how we feel about carp, that it remains a fish and a valuable storehouse of amino acids, proteins, and omega 3s. It also happens to be a food staple to Eastern Europeans and Southeast Asians, many of whom live in Minnesota. Therefore, Minnesota should take Illinois’ lead and combat the “negative image of carp as ugly, cheap, lousy-tasting fish” through various campaigns. With millions of pounds of carp available, we could help feed the hungry.

An additional proposed solution to prevent the spread of Asian carp up the Mississippi River could be to alter the relative heights of water flowing in and out of the Coon Rapids Dam. It has theoretical advantage, but may not be cost-effective. The dam is not a guaranteed measure to prevent carp from jumping further upstream. However, the joint collaboration between the Department of Natural Resources and Three Rivers Park district powers could slow the entire process. 

In the past two years, over $100 million from the federal government has gone to fight carp. “Some funding for the Asian carp program has come from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative requested $300 million for the program in 2013 on top of $1 billion appropriated since 2008”. There is also a $3 billion proposal to separate the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds.

An additional method of impeding the fish lies in constructing noisy bubble traps. Research shows that noise constraints would affect the carp specifically, given their heightened senses of hearing over other species of fish.

In the end, Minnesota tax payers are tossing a lot of money around trying to get rid of a reliable food supply while almost half a million people go hungry in the state. That’s beyond ridiculous. Rather than spending millions of dollars trying to control or dispose of these fish, we should catch them along with the other fish and eat them with the other fish. Extra fish, hungry people—make the fish desirable and feed the hungry. Fish is fish, as my father used to say, right? I am a pescetarian and I share that view.  

Photo credit: UFWS

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  • W. D. (Bill) Hamm says:

    April 10, 2012 at 9:01 am

    Seems like a simple solution, one that has failed multiple times in the past. Asian Carp of one kind or anouther have been a pressing and growing problem since they were first ignorantly introduced in the 1800’s. The original idea was to eat them, but they have never equalled the quality of the fish they are repacing in the taste buds of Americans. Good luck with this round of convincing us to eat them. While trapping and netting them is fairly simple, it does no good without market. Furthermore, if a market were developed we need legislation that will allow for the commercial harvest of these species.

  • William Pappas says:

    April 11, 2012 at 5:58 am

    To give up and embrace carp is an entirely disastrous approach.  It will change the ecology and water quality of Minnesota’s lakes and rivers forever.  This idea will completely destroy the recreational fishing industry in Minnesota.  Telling fisherman they must now fish for carp instead of bass is beyond absurd.  But worse is the impact on every living creature in our state’s waters.  Preserving Minnesota’s natural heritage and resources should be a responsibility we take on for our children.  I cannot believe that we would simply make our state safe for invasives.  I guess a similar approach to climate change would mean embracing a massive change in species composition in our entire state, giving up our winter fishing, watch the evolution of the north woods into a scrub hardwood tangle and constantly adjust our entire way of life to a changing landscape.  That sounds like an approach that those who would like to continue massive tax breaks to the rich while eliminating our commitment to resource preservation and conservation advocate.  Outrageous.

  • Stanton Zobel says:

    April 11, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    It’s a good idea to try and see the influx of Asian carp as an opportunity rather than a threat.  But we should not minimize that threat.  I mourn the idea that the happy days of waterskiing on Minnesota lakes that peppered my youth will be over for new generations.  Can you imagine learning how to waterski, just rising above the drag of the water and then being hit in the head, back or chest by a 40 pound, cold fish?  Tourism in Mn is an $11 billion industry that is often focused on the recreational use of water.  That industry will be significantly impacted by the presence of Asian carp.  If you could choose to float on lake or river that doesn’t shoot fish at you compared to one the moves cleanly and predictably, which would you choose? The Coon Rapids Dam will not be a barrier to Asian carp.  It is just a red herring fielded by Republican lawmakers to funnel taxpayer money toward a relatively few benefactors of a boating lake above the dam.  Closing the locks at St. Anthony Falls would be a much more effective solution to stop carp influx.  In the end, thinking “metrocentrically” about Asian carp ignores Minnesota’s unparalleled resources for water recreation and the role that fresh water plays in our state.  While professors maintain that the biggest threat to the quality of our water is already here, it seems to me that an even larger threat to our quality of life is on its way.