Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
One Piece At A Time
Midwest Region, May 11, 2013
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A leaping silver carp.
A leaping silver carp. - Photo Credit: USFWS-Columbia FWCO

One piece at a time. Johnny Cash built a car that way in one of his classic songs - slowly smuggling out all the necessary parts over a period of years. In fact, many great things are built slowly, one piece at a time. The great pyramids of Egypt and the Transcontinental Railroad come to mind.

Likewise many of our greatest ecological successes come together in a similar fashion. For example, the Bald Eagle was recently removed from the threatened and endangered species list. This recovery took decades of scientific research, legislation, education and public support – many small steps that added up to a big victory. Also, our treasured National Wildlife Refuge System began in 1903 as the single 5-acre Pelican Island Refuge. Today, there are 556 refuges conserving more than 95 million acres. It was built one piece (refuge) at a time.

Currently, one of the most vexing environmental problems we deal with is the continued spread of invasive Asian carp. The geographic scope, complexity, and potential ecological and economic impacts of this invasion make for a large-scale challenge with no single, easy solution. Like many of the ecological challenges of the past, progress on this problem will likely be made slowly - one piece at a time. Monitoring, research, development of new fishing gears, public education and increased harvest are all potential pieces of the solution.

History tells us that humans can drive fish populations to decline through overharvest. The collapse of the cod fishery in the North Atlantic is a classic case of demand for a fish outweighing the supply.

While overharvest of a species is usually a negative, it can also serve as a model for controlling invasive species. Unfortunately, there is little current demand for Asian carp as a food fish in the United States; therefore there is little economic incentive for commercial fishermen to harvest them. At present, the supply of Asian carp far outweighs demand. The trick then becomes convincing American’s they should be eating Asian carp – a tough sell, given that we, as a country, don’t consume much fish to start with. And considering that, historically, “carp” has been something of a four-letter word, filled with negative connotations.

Changing this perception will likely take some creative rebranding of the Asian carp product, coupled with a successful outreach campaign targeted at the general food buying public. There are more than 300 million people in the United States, if only one percent were eating Asian carp on a regular basis, that could probably put a dent in the problem.


I recently had the opportunity to teach a class on cleaning and cooking Asian carp at the WOW National Outdoor and Recreation Conservation School in Columbia, Missouri. While the students had certainly heard of and seen videos of Asian carp (a.k.a., them jumping carp), they were surprised to learn that the Silver and Bighead carp share little in common with Common Carp – other than a name.

Students marveled at how firm and white the meat was – very different from the Common Carp. They were also surprised to learn that Asian carp flesh contains many of the same health benefits as tuna and salmon, but is likely lower in heavy metals (because Asian carp are planktivores they are less prone to biomagnification of heavy metals). But what to do with all the bones?

Students practiced a couple techniques for removing the numerous Y-bones which Asian carp fillets contain, and within a short time we had several pounds of lean protein ready for cooking. The smell of frying fish even drew in other WOW participants who were interested in a taste test. Both the fried carp and the carp tacos were quickly eaten. Hopefully these students will continue eating this surprisingly good tasting fish and spread the word, helping us create a carp eating coalition.

In this time of escalating grocery prices in which many families struggle to prepare healthy meals, Asian carp should be considered as a source of lean, inexpensive protein. If you live near a large river in the Midwest and have a boat, you then have easy access to all the Asian carp you could possibly eat, and it wouldn’t even cost you a dime. Maybe Asian carp can be controlled one delicious piece at a time.

Contact Info: Colby Wrasse, 573-234-2132 x30, colby_wrasse@fws.gov
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