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Might sound fishy, but a new name for invasive carp could help save Great Lakes

Officials in Illinois and other states plan to rename Asian carp, which might decimate other fish species if they make it into Lake Michigan and other Great Lakes, threatening a $7 billion-a-year commercial fishing industry and a $16 billion tourism industry.

Owner Dirk Fucik, left, and Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Josina Morita, right, enjoy an Asian carp burger inside Dirk’s Fish and Gourmet Shop at 2070 N. Clybourn Ave. in October.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

How many people are eager to sit down to an entrée of slimehead? Or Patagonian toothfish? Or mud crabs? Or oilfish? Or, dare we even bring this up, a sushi delicacy of whore’s eggs?

Not many of us, we would guess. All those seafood entrees sound, to put it mildly, unappetizing. Please pass the peanut butter.

We’d much rather munch on more elegant fare. Give us orange roughy, Chilean sea bass, peekytoe crab, blue cod or Maine sea urchins. Perhaps with a whimsical sea shanty playing softly in the background.

Except, of course, that the more appealing-sounding entrees are just cleverly rebranded versions of seafood with the names we mentioned up top. It’s a marketing idea that works. With its new description, the one-time throwaway mud crab, er, peekytoe crab, became a culinary celebrity. Similarly, the Patagonian toothfish gained palate popularity when it was reintroduced in 1977 as Chilean sea bass, even though it is not technically a bass. Names do make a difference. A slimehead by any other name tastes a lot better.

Officials at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and other states are dusting off that marketing playbook with a sensible plan for rechristening invasive Asian carp. They say they are “early in the process” for seeking approval for a name change from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They would like more people to eat carp to reduce their numbers.

If the carp spread unchecked, they might decimate other fish populations if they make it into Lake Michigan and other Great Lakes, threatening a $7 billion-a-year commercial fishing industry and a $16 billion tourism industry. Ever since the carp escaped from southern ponds into the Mississippi River and started working their way north, the goal has been finding ways to reduce their numbers and block their approach. A University of Michigan study released in July concluded climate change and nutrient pollution render the lakes extra vulnerable to invasive carp.

Back in 2010, then-Gov. Pat Quinn signed an agreement to haul as much as 30 million pounds of Asian carp a year out of the Illinois waterways and sell it to China, where it is a delicacy. If Americans also start thinking of the carp as tasty, commercial fishing operations could pull even more carp out of rivers, making it less likely the would-be scaly gate crashers ever get into the lakes. By one estimate, there are 60 million to 75 million pounds of carp just in the Illinois River.

So far, river barriers near Romeoville have kept the four species of invasive carp at bay, and Congress included money in its 2021 fiscal year budget to ensure the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is operating them as effectively as possible. But the existing barriers are not considered robust enough to work indefinitely. A new, stronger barrier on the drawing boards, a $778 million project at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam on the Des Plaines River southwest of Chicago, would use electricity, sounds that ward off fish, curtains of intimidating bubbles and a special lock to redirect larval fish and eggs downstream. On Jan. 7, Illinois signed a pre-construction engineering and design agreement to move the project ahead. But Illinois dragged its feet on the project for years, and now it will take seven to 10 years to complete. And more money will have to be found when it’s time to award construction contracts.

Asian carp burger patties sit prepared and ready to eat at Dirk’s Fish and Gourmet Shop at 2070 N Clybourn Ave in Sheffield Neighbors last year.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Other states are working to reduce the number of carp in their waterways and block them from using points of possible entry into the Great Lakes during times of flooding. Earlier this month, for example, Kentucky officials announced a record haul by commercial fishers last year of 7.66 million pounds.

Finding a way to increase consumption of Asian carp is “critical,” said Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Cameron “Cam” Davis, who was co-chair of the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee in the Obama administration. That’s especially true in Illinois waterways, which form the only continuous link between the Great Lakes and the carp-infested Mississippi River system.

MWRD Commissioner Josina Morita
Sun-Times Media

In October, MWRD Commissioner Josina Morita sponsored carp burger and carp taco giveaways in Evanston and Chicago to encourage people to snack on carp burgers. Unfortunately, many Americans think of carp as tainted bottom-feeding fish with hard-to-remove small bones. But grocery stores, restaurants, pet food makers and other fish mongers might overcome that image with better equipment to remove the bones and a new, appealing image for the finny food. A selling point: The carp’s mild, flaky, easily seasoned meat has low levels of mercury and high levels of iron and omega-3s. It would be a clear contributor to the “eat local” movement. And unlike common carp, the plankton- and vegetation-eating fish are not bottom feeders.

Not everyone thinks renaming carp will work. A tentative effort to market carp as “silverfin” has already fizzled. And not all commercial fishers are on board with the renaming. But Illinois officials believe it is worth a try.

The new foodie-friendly name for Asian carp won’t be released until June. Let’s hope they come up with a piscine pseudonym that whets the appetite. Midwest river bass, anyone?

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In this June 13, 2012, photo, Asian carp, jolted by an electric current from a research boat, jump from the Illinois River near Havana.
AP Photos