The One That Got Away
They’re breaking jaws. They’re spawning lawsuits. They’re pitting states against states. Now, as Asian carp invade Minnesota, they’re even worrying the president.
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Bringing the fight to unwanted fish is officially the job of the government. Invasive species take an estimated $100 billion bite out of the American economy every year, largely in crop and timber losses. So the government secures our natural borders against alien invasion, as it were, just as it patrols our national boundaries. Over the last hundred years, we’ve dumped chemicals in the water, released wasps to control beetles, released beetles to control plants, and even created sterile sea lampreys to lure virile ones to their doom—all in a delicate effort to manage nature without making it too, well, unnatural.
In Minnesota, such management is the work of the Department of Natural Resources—the DNR, which is headquartered on the east side of St. Paul in a glass-and-steel office building, nondescript except for the taxidermied deer in the entryway. In the building’s cafeteria, I meet with Jay Rendall, the state’s invasive-species prevention coordinator. He’s middle-aged, wearing a fleece vest of the sort you might bring on a hike, and has the methodical manner of one accustomed to forces beyond his control, like nature and politics.
“What’s an invasive species?” he asks rhetorically. “Anything that comes from somewhere else.” He reads from a list of Minnesota invaders: “Zebra mussels, rusty crayfish, faucet snails, spiny waterfleas, round gobies, earthworms….” It’s a long list.
Minnesota, Rendall points out, has the mixed blessing of being connected to the two biggest water systems in North America: the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes, which bring ships to our shores from across the world—along with some undesirable hitchhikers. Rendall shows me a graph depicting the number of invasive species introduced into the Great Lakes in the last 150 years. There’s a huge spike after 1960 that never really goes back down: The St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959. Minnesota is also believed to harbor more boats per capita than any other state—which would be fine if people didn’t drag them from lake to lake, spreading pests and, ironically, destroying the environment they bought the boats to enjoy.
The DNR couldn’t begin to subdue every alien species, Rendall says, so it prioritizes. Some species are relatively harmless. Others have become so ubiquitous, like pigeons, that the cost of eradication would be unreasonable. Right now, Rendall says, the DNR’s public enemy No. 1 is probably the zebra mussel, a fingernail-size native of Russia that, among other iniquities, clogs boat motors and starves out competing species.
Asian carp are a ways down the list. “They’re not in Minnesota yet—officially,” Rendall says. “We’re in the prevention, not management, stage for them.” And much of the prevention effort has been thwarted by a lack of cash.
“We thought at first that we’d get a barrier erected on the Mississippi down in Iowa,” Rendall says. “When the money for that didn’t come through, we thought we’d get one on the border.” That didn’t happen either. Nor did a barrier proposed for a spot even farther upriver. A barrier wouldn’t be that expensive: $4 million—about what Matt Entenza spent of his own money running for governor last year. The problem, Rendall says, is that anything built on the Mississippi River, a federal waterway, must involve the Corps of Engineers, which necessitates federal funding. Since a fish barrier would be a localized project, that essentially means earmark funding—suddenly the scourge of Congress.
“We’ve talked to the Congressional delegation I don’t know how many times,” Rendall says with a smile of exasperation. “Is helping Minnesota a federal priority? If that’s not what politicians and society want then I don’t know what else we can do.”
The DNR’s latest thought is to retrofit the decommissioned Coon Rapids Dam, north of Minneapolis, as a fish barrier. That, I point out, would mean conceding the Mississippi to carp all the way to the Twin Cities.
“Look,” Rendall says, his equanimity beginning to waver, “I wish we could do more.” He throws up his hands. “But I’ve got 10,000 people yelling at me to do something about zebra mussels.”
In the absence of law and order, vigilantes have always risen up: Doc Holliday, Bernie Goetz, the Carpbusters. And guys like Reggie McLeod, who just wants to eat the carp. McLeod lives in Winona and is the editor and publisher of Big River magazine, which covers life along the Mississippi. He’s observed the carp invasion from the beginning, and he thinks the problem isn’t the fish—it’s us.
McLeod is tall, graying, and as laidback as the river he’s reported on for decades. And every time he eats at a restaurant, he asks for carp. He hasn’t found a restaurant yet that serves it—not even Buzzard Billy’s Flying Carp Café in La Crosse—but he asks anyway, just to make a point. “What, you took it off the menu?” he jokes. He thinks we should all be eating Asian carp, which are bony but mild-tasting, at least as good as whatever is in fish sticks. And then, because humans have a remarkable ability to eat other species to the point of extinction, problem solved.
But no one’s hungry for carp. For the past two years, Big River has sponsored a carp recipe contest, challenging restaurants to come up with dishes. No one has bit, even as the state of Illinois signed a deal last year to export nearly 30 million pounds of Asian carp to Chinese supermarkets.
“It mystifies me,” McLeod says. “Our tastes are so culturally prejudiced. Lobsters and shrimp—they’re basically bugs. Oysters are slugs with shells. Heck, the Flying Carp Café serves alligator—that’s a lizard. We eat bugs, slugs, and lizards, but not carp? I hold the chefs of the Midwest responsible for that.”
Could it really be that simple? I ask Peter Sorensen one day in his office if he thinks we can eat our way out of the carp invasion, and he says, “Of course. If we all wanted to eat carp, we wouldn’t be talking about them now.” But, he predicts, we’ll become accustomed to living with Asian carp before we ever decide to eat them, just as we’ve grown accustomed to common carp.
“Look at this,” Sorensen says and shows me a government flier sent out shortly after common carp were brought to America in the late 19th century. The government imported the carp from Europe to help immigrants feel more at home. It raised them, improbably, in the reflecting pool near the Washington Monument, then shipped them out in boxcars. In about 10 years, the immigrants wanted them gone, as the carp began to turn lakes turbid. As recently as the 1980s, the DNRs of many states spent a great deal of time netting carp. Then, with costs rising, they gave up.
The antique government flier implores citizens to round up the carp: Catch the Carp! Eat the carp! Smoke the carp!—much like anti-carp activists are pushing today. “It’s exactly the same thing—exactly!” Sorenson says. “History is repeating itself.”
But for now there’s a carp czar. And there’s $47 million in new money to wage war against the carp and labs across the country eager for the ammunition, including the Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center in La Crosse. Within its bunker-like complex beside the Mississippi, dozens of scientists buzz about. In the basement are tanks where up to 15 species of fish are kept at any one time—the place can replicate any kind of water chemistry that exists in nature. One scientist is testing the DNA and RNA of Asian carp and similar rough fish, to see if poisons can be developed to specifically attack their unique physiologies. Others are studying whether chemicals used to manage fish have lingering effects on animals and people.
They are tinkering—because of a fish, but mostly because of us. Because we tinker with nature every day, managing it, fouling it, moving it around. And now we must keep tinkering, or nature—the nature we’d like to keep—will collapse. We’ve unleashed too many monsters.
“Have you heard of the snakehead?” one of the scientists asks me.
It’s a kind of fish, he says, but it looks like a python with fins. It can survive up to four days out of water. It can even portage, waddling for short distances across land. It came from China, eats anything it can wrap its teeth around, and has no known enemies in America. It’s on the East Coast now. But it’s coming.