Asian Carp Part I: Can Plundering for Profit Save Precious Waterways?

Is there anything sustainable about a business model focused on exploiting a resource until that resource is gone?

When considering, say, the mining of natural resources, of course you would say no. But what about using this approach to curtail the introduction of an invasive species that threatens not only one of the world’s most important ecosystems, but also major industries?

The invader in question here is the Asian carp. The ecosystem is the Great Lakes.

There are actually two specific species, the silver carp—these like to fly out of the water—and the larger, bighead carp. Catfish farmers in the southern US introduced these species to their ponds decades ago, hoping they’d filter out unwanted algea. This all worked fine until the ponds breached during flooding in the early 1990s and the carp found their way into rivers that feed into the Mississippi. Then they found their way into the Mississippi and started working their way north, toward the Great Lakes.

These are hungry, fecund creatures. It doesn’t take long for them to out-eat and overtake native species. If these fish enter the Great Lakes—which they are terribly close to doing, having been spotted just beyond the shipping canal that links Lake Michigan to the Mississippi—chances are, it would reap environmental and economic catastrophes. Goodbye, fish biodiversity (or what’s left of it, after decades of other invasives, including the European carp, have already had their way). Goodbye, sport and commercial fisheries. Hello, Asian carp.

Biologists have been calling for actions for many years, the powers that be are starting—thanks to a lawsuit and the threat of economic disaster—to take action. On Wednesday, politicians held a “carp summit” to start hashing out approaches to the problem, talking to reps from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and Great Lakes activists.

But as Jim Suhr with Associated Press reported last week, there are folks out there who look at the carp and see a business opportunity.

There are plenty of native species that have been completely terminated or pushed to the brink of extinction through over-fishing, so why wouldn’t these invasive carp suffer the same fate with the same approach?

Suhr talked to Mike Schafer of Schafer Fisheries,  a Northwest Illinois fish processor that is pulling in a million pounds of Asian carp each month. Suhr says a third of each fish is turned into a fillet, bound for export (carp isn’t generally found on US menus) and the rest is turned into fertilizer that is used, he notes, largely on California vegetable farms.

Schafer notes that over-fishing carp holds promise, as far as stemming its progress it the Great Lakes is concerned. “In the areas we’ve taken those large quantities out, we’re seeing a depletion of the species there.”

But it seems unlikely that Schafer—and other entrepreneurs, some of whom are looking for government grants to grow their over-fishing schemes—will be able to actually solve the problem. In fact, it seems like the Asian carp is more than likely to push up into the Great Lakes, starting with Lake Michigan. At that point, it will be a matter of trying to manage its population.

“Even if the fish develop a spawning population in the Great Lakes, there are things we can do to control them, as we already do with the sea lamprey,” Duane Chapman, a U.S. Geological Survey fisheries biologist, said at the carp summit. “But it won’t be cheap.”

In the end, the cost of dealing with the Asian carp, especially if doing so disrupts the shipping and fishing industries in the Great Lakes, will likely be much higher than what businesses stand to gain by exploiting them.

In Part II, we’ll consider the Asian carp in a greater context, looking at the impact other invasive species have had in the Great Lakes region.

In the meantime, feast your eyes on these jumpers:

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to www.mcoconnor.com.