China’s voracious appetite for seafood is depleting fisheries around the planet and raising questions about whether there are enough fish in the sea to satisfy hundreds of millions of middle-class stomachs. That’s bad news for humanity in the long run. But in the short run, it's potentially great news for Americans concerned about the negative effects of an Asian carp infestation that threatens to alter the Great Lakes ecosystem, its fisheries and its future for recreation.
There are three species of Asian carp that are considered invasive, all of which were first imported to the U.S. for the purpose of consuming algae and other organic growths in waste water treatment and catfish breeding ponds in the lower Mississippi River basin. Eventually (and perhaps inevitably) they escaped and began moving up the Mississippi, eating everything green in their path and thus damaging ecosystems along the way. In 2012, researchers at Southern Illinois University approximated that Asian carp were 60 percent of the Illinois River's aquatic life.
As they’ve closed in on the Great Lakes (and possibly invaded it already), they have earned high-level U.S. government attention. Earlier this month, an Army Corps of Engineers report (hearings on the report are ongoing all month) suggested eight potential courses of action to block their entrance into the lakes. Every option has costs in terms of time, money and environmental damage, with potentially the most effective -- physical barriers between waterways that dump into the lakes and the lakes themselves -- estimated to cost more than $18 billion dollars and require as many as 25 years to build.
Even if the political will and money existed to build such barriers, their completion would probably come too late to stop an infestation that some suggest has already started and that would likely be fully bloomed in a quarter-century.
So what can be done now?
The citizens of Peoria, Illinois, located on a tributary of the Mississippi River, have one idea. On July 11 and 12, they will hold the first “Flying Fish Festival and Bowfishing Tournament,” during which some of the country’s top bowhunters will be “expected to shoot as many Asian carp as they can while competing for cash prizes,” reports the Journal Star in Peoria, Illinois. Because the carp are an invasive species, there’s no limit to how many a bowhunter can kill -- and presumably they will kill a lot. However, far from wasting the resource, the festival plans to serve up the carp to fairgoers and send what's not eaten to processing plants.
One imagines there will be a lot of carp turning up at those processing plants, in large part because Americans simply don’t seem to like eating carp. Fortunately, inhabitants of another nation do like to consume it: the Chinese. (It’s worth noting that eating the bony carp is much easier with chopsticks.) Carp is the fish of choice in China, a culinary passion even. As a result, the Asian carp invasion is a matter of intense fascination and befuddlement in China; every bit of news about Asian carp in the U.S. seems to generate significant coverage and online discussion. The ultimate question that many Chinese ask: Why don’t they let us eat it?
Could demand from Asia serve to completely eradicate Asian carp from the Mississippi, its tributaries and -- potentially -- the Great Lakes? Probably not. But neither will the long-term strategies outlined by the Army Corps of Engineers. What commercial fishing can do is provide a means of controlling the populations, at least until other, longer-term solutions (such as the barriers estimated to take 25 years to build) are implemented.
The private sector is already stepping in with the U.S.’s first commercial fishery dedicated to the processing of Asian carp near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in Kentucky. On Aug. 20, Two Rivers Fisheries made its first shipment -- of a 1 million pound order -- to China. It joins other companies that have been exporting Asian carp to China in recent years.
Impediments to this solution exist, not least of which is the Chinese preference for live -- not frozen -- fish and the extreme costs of delivering it. If a means could be devised to lower the cost of delivering live carp overseas, sales to Asia would almost certainly escalate, providing new demand for the invasive fish and -- as a bonus -- carp fishing and processing jobs on the Mississippi and its related waterways.
The Army Corps of Engineers, historically fond of infrastructure as the solution to every problem, probably won't recommend research into shipping live carp, and if it did, it would probably face Congressional ridicule. But as solutions to the inevitable invasion of Asian carp in the Great Lakes go, it’s no more ridiculous -- and potentially far more effective -- than physical barriers that probably wouldn't be completed until the middle of the century. Promoting the Mississippi as the world’s greatest carp fishery, and modestly investing in the means to bring that bounty to the world -- and specifically to China -- might just be the best stop-gap to control a problem that doesn’t have a solution.
(Adam Minter is a regular contributor to Bloomberg View based in the Shanghai and the author of “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry.)