Thursday, August 31, 2006

Experts say putting Asian carp on menus could curb river threats

PEORIA, Ill. - Experts say there could be a simple cure for growing schools of high-jumping, food-hogging Asian carp that are threatening native fish along the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

Eat them.

"China doesn't have a problem because we have a lot of fishermen to catch these fish and the people like to eat them," said Zhitang Yu, a Chinese professor who has studied his country's native fish since the 1960s.

In the U.S., the negative perception of eating carp could be a drawback, Duane Chapman, a research fishery biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said during a two-day conference in Peoria this week that drew 200 scientists seeking ways to curb carp problems.

But the once-foreign fish, which Chapman calls "excellent eating," could land on more dinner plates through creative marketing, said Robert Rice, president of The Native Fish Conservancy. If silver carp were renamed silver cod, Rice said, it could become America's newest food fad.

Yu said hooking diners would promote commercial fishing, thinning the Asian carp population. Catching the fish before they spawn also help even more by limiting reproduction.

Experts say Asian carp populations have exploded over the last decade as floods transplanted them from fish-rearing ponds in the southern U.S., where they were used to clear algae, to the Mississippi and Illinois rivers and other tributaries.

Unchecked, Asian carp threaten native fish because they multiply so rapidly that they take over the food chain, experts say. They also endanger people because of their propensity to jump out of the water at the sound of a motor.

At 40 mph in a boat or on skis, people have suffered broken noses, cracked teeth or been knocked unconscious after colliding with a 10- to 20-pound carp, experts say.

"It's just a matter of time before we have a fatality," Rice said.

Whetting Americans' appetites for Asian carp isn't the only possible cure, experts say.

They say floodwater structures could be considered to keep the fish from making their way from backwater lakes to rivers. Scientists also could develop chemical controls, such as one used to keep sea lampreys in check in the Great Lakes, though none is yet available.

Regardless, any control efforts - including commercial fishing - need to be carefully evaluated to gauge their potential effect on native species, said Greg Conover, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"What we do to control Asian carp could have a negative impact on our native fish, too," Conover said. "The more pressure that's out there, the more likely we are to harvest native fishes."

This is an interesting way of looking at nuisance species. In the Peconics of Long Island, we have a native species whose population has exploded, Crepidula fornicata, and may be to blame for disappearing eelgrass beds and lack of bay scallop recovery. However, we propose the same thing, eat them. They are so abundant and you can eat them raw, I actually tried one a couple weeks ago. It wasn't bad at all!

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