GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — While the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is working to rebrand Asian carp to promote more active fishing and human consumption of the fish, its Michigan counterparts are pulling back.
Joanne Foreman, with the Michigan DNR’s Invasive Species program, says while fishing for Asian carp can help reduce the population, the rebranding effort brings its own set of problems.
“We have supported the commercial fishing of invasive carp for many years because the purpose of it is really to reduce the population pressure on the electric barriers that prevent the carp from getting into the Great Lakes,” Foreman told News 8. “Where the (Michigan DNR) is a little concerned is when we give the fish a new name. … It is really to market the food substance of the fish. But we don’t want to make this confusing for the consumer.”
Ever since Asian carp made their way into the Mississippi River, they have been a threat for the Great Lakes. Experts believe that if Asian carp make their way and populate the Great Lakes, it could destroy the ecosystem. There are no natural predators for the Asian carp in the Great Lakes, and it’s expected that they would devour the food resources for many other popular fish, including walleye and rainbow trout, not only cutting into the fish populations but hurting the Great Lakes’ billion-dollar fishing industry.
Because of the serious threat, all Asian carp are prohibited in Michigan. Even for Asian carp to be sold for consumption, the fish must be gutted or gilled before crossing state lanes.
“It’s really important to draw the line that the name change still does not change Michigan’s prohibition on live fish,” Foreman said.
According to Foreman, the Michigan DNR had conversations with the Illinois DNR and other agencies but ultimately decided against partnering in the project.
“We have had some discussions about the pros and cons. And again, Michigan does support the effort as a tool in the toolbox, but it’s just not the answer,” Foreman said.
The Michigan DNR’s other main concern? Funding and focus. Foreman says the agency worries the rebranding effort could pull funding or focus away from the other strategies to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.
“I’ve heard the phrase used, ‘If you can’t beat them, eat them.’ We don’t want to give up on the battle against invasive carp,” Foreman said. “We believe that we still need funding to support the Brandon Road Lock & Dam Project. We’re looking to build additional barriers and use new technologies to prevent those fish from getting into the Great Lakes.”
The Michigan DNR is taking part in other studies to find alternatives to ensure Asian carp stay out of the Great Lakes, including research on a new piscicide formula.
Piscicides are essentially explained by the name — they are pesticides for fish. Researchers have used targeted piscicides to target specific species in the past, most notably, the sea lamprey.
“Ultimately, what we’re looking for is not just a way to slow down the Asian carp population. We really would like to eradicate the fish, and it’s going to take time and a lot of science to get there,” Foreman told News 8.
The Illinois DNR is now calling Asian Carp by a new name: Copi — short for copious.
The invasive species has taken over the Mississippi River system. In some ecosystems, Asian carp represent 70% of all fish specimens.
Asian carp is the most commonly eaten freshwater fish worldwide, but Illinois DNR officials believe the name turns Americans off because common carp are bottom feeders with a notably muddy taste. The four species of Asian carp — Bighead, Black, Silver and Grass carp — are all top feeders and are known for their light taste.
Chef Brian Jupiter, who partnered with the Illinois DNR on the copi rebranding project, called the fish “a clean slate” that works well with spices and marinades.
“Copi is more savory than tilapia, cleaner tasting than catfish, and firmer than cod,” Jupiter said in the Illinois DNR’s name announcement. “It’s the perfect canvas for creativity — pan fried, steamed, broiled, baked, roasted or grilled.”
The fish are also quite healthy. Copi is second only to wild salmon in protein content and is high in both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. And since they eat primarily plankton and vegetation, they contain very little to no mercury or lead.
HOW DID ASIAN CARP ARRIVE STATESIDE?
Asian carp are not native to North America — hence the name — but were intentionally brought from Asia to the U.S. as a promising chemical alternative. In the 1970s, Asian carp were imported to be used in wastewater treatment plants and aquaculture ponds to eat up the algal blooms that posed a problem.
However, the four species were eventually able to make their way into the wild and take over the Mississippi River basin, heading north and expanding into the Missouri and Illinois Rivers.
As the carp multiplied and moved north, several environmental agencies jumped into action. One lock system in Minnesota was shut down to prevent the fish from getting through. Electric barriers have been installed in Illinois along the Des Plaine River, about 30 miles southwest of Chicago. And while they have been quite effective, a handful of Asian carp have made it through the barrier.
According to the National Wildlife Federation, some juvenile Asian carp have accidentally been brought through accidentally by barges. However, there has been no indication that enough have made it through to establish a population of the invasive species on the Great Lakes side of the barriers.
Research from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers identified the Brandon Road Lock and Dam as a key chokepoint to keep the fish from reaching the Great Lakes. In 2019, the Army Corps of Engineers submitted its plan to Congress to fortify the area with several types of barriers.
The project is estimated to cost $858 million, with costs shared by Michigan and Illinois and covered partially by federal funding.
Construction is expected to take between 6 to 8 years. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expects to award the first construction contracts in the next two years.
*Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that rainbow trout are native to the Great Lakes. They are not. We regret the error, which has been fixed.