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Jumping Carp

Courtesy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services biologist Heidi Keuler leaves leaping silver carp in her wake.

Two centuries share the same fish story

by Janelle Schroeder
May 12, 2011

History does repeat itself and the Asian carp are here to prove it. 

It is, in fact the second time a foreign carp species has caused problems for America, according to urban planner Glenn Sandiford, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The carp controversy is nothing new to the United States.

The Asian carp controversy, making headlines as the fish threaten to invade Lake Michigan, is the replay of the Common carp invasion two centuries ago Sandiford said. He spoke at the Invasive Species in a Globalized World conference at the University of Chicago Thursday and walked through two similar stories in three stages.

Sandiford clarified that the data he presented was not from scientific field research, but from archives, including multiple newspapers and magazines dating back to the 19th century. Time magazine and the Chicago Tribune both covered the events through tye years.

Stage One – Happy welcome

Then and now, the initial introduction of carp in America was done in a spirit of optimism. The United States brought in the Common carp from Europe because the government recognized it a new food source. Fish stocking was done in the 1860s as a public good, according to Sandiford. After years of research it was deliberately distributed in the 1870s.

“The government perceived them as feeding a rapidly growing nation,” said Sandiford.

The history of the Asian carp bears a strong resemblance to the past history. The so-called Asian Grass carp was brought to the United States as a promising alternative to pesticides.

“Asian carp had been found to be very effective to control weeds in Asia and China,” said Sandiford.

The so-called Asian Grass carp arrived in 1957 for initial federal testing and ultimately ended up at the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission in 1963.

With the case of both the Common carp and Asian carp, the initial reaction was positive. Sandiford presented quotes from various 19th century publications that said the common carp was the most prolific fish a person has ever known and the fish could grow as big as a pumpkin. One publication even touted that Carp meat is almost equal to the American Trout. With the case of the Asian carp in 1972, Time magazine praised the fish to the public.

Stage Two - Dissatisfaction

The public position on carp started to spiral downward. Only one year after the United States started to distribute the Common carp, the fish began to escape from locally stocked ponds as well as a federal facility in Washington, D.C. Thousands of carp escaped, but Sandiford said the government saw it as no big deal.

At the same time, American pinched its nose as the use of carp for a food. Bonn Phillips, writer for the New York Times, published an 1880 positive review of a carp dinner.

Yet only three years later, The American Field magazine published a negative review of the fish, prompting the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries to issue a statement that said Americans just needed to change their taste palates according to Sandiford.

That didn’t happen. By 1894, the Common carp was “undesirable completely,” Sandiford said.

The Asian carp also proved to be escape artists, making their move only three years after they were brought to the United States. By 1973, Asian carp had migrated to 35 states.

The Silver carp variety is known for leaping from the water, injuring boaters. Sandiford said that human injuries above anything else catapulted the invasive species in the public minds. People are now paying attention because physical safety of humans is at risk.

“It’s like getting hit with a bowling ball,” said Sandiford. In 2010, Time Magazine called Asian carp locusts of the rivers. After 40 years of existence in the United States, he said that Asian carp created crisis rhetoric.

Stage Three – Cooking lessons

Unpopular but cheap, there were 17 million pounds of Common carp 30 years after it was introduced and eventually became a poor man’s fish. Sandiford said that the United States government still pushed for the general population to eat carp in World War I as a way to save food resources.

Asian carp is finding its way to the plate as well, though the Palmer House in downtown Chicago tried Asian carp on the menu and offered the dishes for free in an attempt to just get rid of it. The Chicago Tribune wrote a 2006 article that advised thinking of the fish not as carp but “as a mass of proteins.”

Schafer Fisheries in Northwestern Illinois buys several carp varieties from commercial fishermen and processes the fish for foreign distribution. Steve NcNitt, a buyer for the processor said that a large duty tax abroad is halting some reoccurring orders, however.

“Our sales haven’t been as big as last year, but some of our big orders are coming back,” said Steve McNitt, a Schafer Fisheries buyer.