Putting Our Destructive Appetites To Productive Use

The State of Maryland really doesn’t like the frightful northern snakehead.  Its name, while grimly evocative, doesn’t quite do the creature justice.  It’s an ugly, slimy fish that can reach weights of 15 pounds or more, it looks like a torpedo with a mouthful of sharp, needle-like teeth, and it can even survive out of water for several days and wriggle along on land.  And, it’s an invasive species to boot.

snakehead-fishThe northern snakehead is native to Asia and simply doesn’t belong in Maryland, but when one thoughtless pet owner dumped some of the fish into Maryland waters, the state took action.  (Anybody who would want these horrors for pets probably shouldn’t be permitted to own them, when you think about it.)  When the state found the fish in a pond, it poisoned the pond, and when it found the fish in a lake, it drained the lake.  But the northern snakehead apparently is as wily and hardy as it is repulsive, because the fish kept turning up — and then it was finally found in the Potomac River, where the poisoning and draining approaches obviously wouldn’t work.  In the meantime, people started catching the northern snakehead, or seeing it in the river, and were close to freaking out for fear that it might eat their pets or be some kind of poisonous mutant.

So Maryland decided to take another tack — now, it is encouraging people to hunt for the northern snakehead and eat it.  Maryland sponsors snakehead fishing tournaments and offers licenses to hunt the fish with bow and arrow, and Maryland restaurants have started serving the fish to customers, too.  The fish apparently has a firm, white, mild flesh, but to get to it you have to first scrape off a thick layer of slime — which doesn’t exactly make the fish seem appetizing, does it?  Still, its meat apparently stands up well to seasoning, and it is perfectly edible for most people . . . if they don’t know about the monstrosity from which the meat came.  Some people, on the other hand, actually like the idea of striking back and eating the flesh of the scary invasive species that shouldn’t be in the Potomac River in the first place.

Maryland has gone from no commercial fishing of the northern snakehead to harvesting thousands of the pounds of the fish for restaurants.  It’s still got a long way to go before it can eat its way out of the northern snakehead infestation, but it’s made a good start.  We all know about how the destructive activities and appetites of human beings have put some creatures onto the endangered species list, and worse.  Maybe this time we can finally put those destructive tendencies to good use.  Who knows:  if we can eat our way to the demise of the northern snakehead, perhaps we can take the same creative and filling approach to the dreaded Asian carp, zebra mussels, and sea lampreys that are invasive species in the Great Lakes?

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When You Fish Upon A Czar

Having appointed czars for the auto industry, bank bailouts, pay, energy, and countless other issues, President Obama finally got around to appointing a czar for a really important issue to those of us in the Midwest — namely, preventing the potential invasion of the Great Lakes by the Asian carp.

Nicholas II

It’s not entirely clear what powers the “Carp Czar” will have, although Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, in announcing the czar’s appointment, said he would be in “full attack, full-speed ahead mode.”  (The Senator also helpfully reassured us that the federal government is “not in denial.”)  That’s a good thing, because the Asian carp unquestionably pose a tougher challenge than reinvigorating the moribund U.S. auto industry, reining in greedy executives, or preventing further reckless lending and investing by U.S. bankers.  After all, the Asian carp are cold-blooded creatures that can fly (sort of), eat 40 percent of their weight every day, swim hundreds of miles upstream, knock out boaters and fishermen, and smash through an electronic force field without some much as batting a lidless fish eye.

Ivan the Terrible

So if we are going to get a Carp Czar, let’s make sure that he’s not a prissy, wussy czar like Nicholas II who may fall under the spell of some fishy character like Rasputin.  No, we need a tough, ruthless czar to adequately meet the formidable challenge of the Asian carp.  Someone with the temperament of Ivan the Terrible or Peter the Great, willing to lay waste to entire populations of carp, denude the entrance points to the Lakes of all sustenance and aquatic life, and reroute the streams of commerce to keep the invasive fish out of our Great Lakes, would do just fine.

Ian Malcolm Was (And Is) Right

We all remember Dr. Ian Malcolm, the annoyingly egotistical mathematician and chaos theorist from the Jurassic Park books and movies.  Malcolm confidently predicted that, for all of its technology, Jurassic Park was a fundamentally unstable creation that would inevitably fail because “life finds a way.” He was right, of course.

His statement has proven to be equally true as it applies to the relentless advance of the dreaded Asian carp.  An “electric barrier” was created to keep the carp from moving up the Mississippi River and into the Great Lakes.  Now the carp have been caught past the barrier, only six miles from Lake Michigan.  The Great Lakes communities are tremendously concerned that the destructive fish will ruin the sports fishing and recreational boating industries on the Great Lakes, and Members of Congress from the surrounding states have now proposed legislation to permanently separate the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes in order to keep invasive species out.

Let’s hope that any action gets taken in time, but I think Ian Malcolm would point out that six miles is not a very long distance.  He might predict that if a fish was caught only six miles away, there is a good chance that other members of that species have already traversed the six-mile distance — and if they haven’t, they could jump, crawl, sprint, or be carried past whatever barrier is erected in their path.  Asian carp, he might suggest, will somehow find a way.

The Fear And Fury Of Fierce Flying Fish

They’ve tried just about everything to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes, and still the carp continue their inexorable movement toward some of the largest fresh water bodies in the world.   The carp were apparently — and stupidly — introduced into our ecosystem decades ago, when someone thought that their willingness to eat algae and waste products made them perfectly suited to help keep sewage lagoons in the South clean.  The fish somehow escaped their captivity, as living beings typically do, made their way to the Mississippi River, and since then having been moving steadily northward despite man’s best efforts to stop them. 

It reminds me of the old commercial about “ring around the collar.”  The embarrassed, exhausted housewife pushes back locks of her hair as the announcer intones:  “You’ve tried scrubbing them out!  You’ve tried soaking them out!”  With the Asian carp, they’ve tried establishing an electrical barrier to keep them from getting from the Mississippi River into the Great Lakes.   When that apparently didn’t work — they found Asian carp DNA on the other side of the barrier — they poisoned miles of the potential entrance way in hopes of killing any hardy Asian carp that might have crossed the barrier.  Somehow I doubt that has worked, either.

Why do people care?  Because Asian carp are an invasive species, for one, and the Great Lakes’ experience with other invasive species, like the zebra mussel, has not been a happy one.  For another, the carp can grow to gigantic sizes, and there is reason to fear that the carp will consume so much plankton that native fish species, like Lake Erie perch and walleye, will starve.  If that happens, it will kill off not only the native fish species, but also the multi-million-dollar sport fishing industry on the Great Lakes.  And finally, people care because the Asian carp are some kind of weird, hyper-aggressive superfish that is perfectly willing to fling itself out of the water and hurl itself toward the fisherman or boater, like a bolt from the deep.  (Check out the YouTube video I’ve posted below if you don’t believe me, and it is just one of many.)  There are stories about the fish knocking people senseless, breaking jaws, and generally wreaking havoc on boats and their occupants.  What recreational boater is going to want to go for a leisurely cruise on Lake Erie if their idyllic trip requires them to navigate through a plague-like curtain of massive, leaping fish?