Eat 'em All? "Silverfin" Cannot Save the Great Lakes

Slimehead, yum. Patagonian toothfish, tasty! What, you’ve never eaten orange roughy or Chilean sea bass? The fishing industry has done a masterful job of rebranding their catch to create new markets. And some folks, I think naively, now suggest that a new marketing program will unleash the American appetite to avert the Asian carp crisis currently gripping the entire Great Lakes region.

Asian carp are large invasive fish that out-breed and out-compete native species in the Mississippi River watershed and now threaten to make their way into the Great Lakes where most regulators and biologists fear that the carp will decimate an already stressed ecosystem. We have been advocating some important short- and long-term actions that must be taken to safe guard 1/5 of the world’s fresh water and billions of dollars in industry. It’s a big, ongoing, fight that goes to the Supreme Court next week.

In the crush to avoid an ecosystem tragedy, one novel way to fight the fish is gaining a bit of traction in online comment forums in the region. Eat ‘em. In fact, Andrew Wetzler wrote a great Switchboard post on this, complete with recipes, a year ago.

But, if you ask around, these fish have a horrible reputation. Many folks say they taste horrible (I’ve seen references to tasting like oil and rancid fish). Others complain about long, detached bones that can make the fish a nightmare to cut and eat. And so, the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources had a straight-faced suggestion on how to unleash American mouths on the problem.

Rebrand them as “silverfin.”

The new name would eliminate the unsavory rep that plagues the fish now. Plenty of folks are adamant that the naysayers are way off base because Asian carp taste great. In fact, Duane Chapman a USGS scientist with lots of first-hand knowledge of these fish says they are yummy and even has a series of YouTube videos that show how to cut around the bony problem

The rebranding of orange roughy and Chilean sea bass has been deadly effective…their populations have plummeted so far due to their newfound popularity that we shouldn’t even be eating those species anymore. So, according to some, Louisiana’s solution is the way to go. Let’s eat ‘em all, problem solved, right?


I understand where the folks in Louisiana are coming from, since the silver and bighead carp have been in their waterways for decades. They are throwing up their hands and saying, “if you can’t beat them, eat them.” And I suppose that makes sense in places that have already been overrun like Louisiana, and in the Illinois River.

But when dealing with an invasive species that has not yet established itself, we should be looking for a very different outcome---eradication. As my colleague Henry Henderson astutely points out, we probably cannot eat enough of the Asian carp to eliminate them before they reach Lake Michigan (they are six miles away and given the lack of urgency from regulators, probably closer). And by developing a market for them you would quickly establish a bunch of folks with a vested interest in keeping the fish around for profit. That’s the last thing we need in an already politically charged battle to protect the lakes.

Even worse, it creates the false notion that this problem will be solved without real policy and infrastructural change. And that won’t work…we have to deal with the Asian carp problem directly. Let’s get down to the tough work of figuring out how we can re-establish a real separation of the ecosystems.

Afterall, when have you ever been able to eat your way out of a problem? Gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins, not a reliable long-term solution.

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