Psst. Hey buddy, wanna buy 6 million carp?
You'd be doing Utah a big favor. Ditto for a rare, funny-looking fish called the June sucker that's trying to mount a comeback in the state's largest natural freshwater lake.
When carp feed along the lake bottom, they rip out the weeds, which provide important hiding places for young June suckers. Without them, the suckers are easy pickings for hungry predators such as bass and walleye.
The June sucker, which is known to live only in Utah Lake and its tributaries, has been listed as an endangered species since 1986, when biologists estimated there were fewer than 1,000 left.
In recent years, about 100,000 June suckers have been raised in a hatchery and dropped into the lake. But the job of saving the fish — which has cost about $39 million so far — won't be done until most of the bony bottom-feeding carp are gone.
"It's probably the biggest barrier to June sucker recovery," said Mike Mills, the local coordinator for the recovery program.
Already, some dead carp have been used for compost. There's talk of shipping them overseas to tap into the strong international market or for use in humanitarian missions. They could also be kept closer to home for fish meal, pet food, fish sticks or canned carp.
Some people even dream of converting them into biofuels.
"How cool would it be to be driving a car powered by carp?" said Cassie Mellon, a fish biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
A few weeks ago, the state issued a permit to a businessman to remove 1.6 million pounds of carp over six months and come up with a viable way to market it.
Wildlife officials don't want the carp simply tossed out to rot in a landfill or dumped in a hole in the desert, as some have suggested.
"It's hard to see a fish wasted when there are people in the world that are starving and could use the food," Mills said. "It'd be great if we could find a market for these fish and that market could fund the whole effort."
Carp were first put into the 151-square-mile Utah Lake in the late 1800s as a food source to replace dwindling native fish.
They're common throughout Utah and much of the United States. Drew Cushing, the state's warm water fisheries coordinator, said they can ruin spawning ground for other fish, stir up sediments and pave the way for invasive plants to take root. On the other hand, young carp can also be a good food source for other animals.
Through an aggressive netting program, wildlife officials want to pull about 1 million pounds of carp out of the shallow lake each year for six years, said Reed Harris, director of the June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program. Program officials hope that such a reduction will be enough for the bottom vegetation to recover and provide cover for the struggling June sucker.
'Hard to market'
Commercial fisherman Bill Loy Jr. said he was successful for years at Utah Lake, selling carp to a California company, but business was hurt by a 2006 warning from state officials against eating too much carp from Utah Lake because of carcinogens. PCB levels in the fish exceeded Environmental Protection Agency standards but not those set by the Food and Drug Administration.
"That makes them a little hard to market," Loy said.
One of the best options might be converting the fish into "carp meal" for trout being raised at Utah hatcheries, said Richard Kellems, a professor of plant and wildlife sciences at Brigham Young University who is researching potential uses for the carp. That would reduce the need to import trout food from other countries.
Other possible uses for the carp include garden fertilizer, fish sauce, protein source in imitation crab meat and for human consumption in central Europe and Asia, Kellems said, adding that he's developed a simple way to liquefy carp into a product that doesn't need refrigeration.
He said researchers are evaluating ways to remove the toxic PCBs from liquefied carp so the fish meet consumption guidelines.
Carp remains a sought-after delicacy in some parts of the country.
Joe Tess Place, a restaurant and fish market in Omaha, Neb., goes through about 30,000 pounds of carp per month, though none of it from Utah Lake, manager Scott McPheeters said.
Most of it ends up on an open-faced sandwich, served on rye with a side of dill pickles. The sandwich has been a restaurant staple since the 1930s.
"Carp's the No. 1 seller out here," McPheeters said, who acknowledged: "It's an acquired taste."