Editor’s Note: The following story was written by a student in our Eco Youth Reporters program, conducted in conjunction with award-winning journalist Kari Lydersen and Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism. The Eco Youth Reporters program is generously funded by the McCormick Foundation:
By pulling out a single strand of hair, your DNA instantly becomes environmental DNA or eDNA and this concept may help us save the Great Lakes from the potential devastation of the Asian carp. I didn’t understand this until I met Chris Jerde at the University of Notre Dame on a trip with my journalism classmates.
Jerde’s current job is to extract eDNA from water samples to search for a trace of Asian carp but this process can be used for other things to in the near future. He demonstrated by filtering water through special filters that captured algae and other microorganisms, allowing the eDNA to collect in sterile containers for testing.
“The process we use now will help us find the location of the carp, and in the future this process will help us figure out multiple species of fish,” Jerde said. “How many there are, and where they’re located, which is way better than counting them.”
Jerde is now a research assistant professor at the Notre Dame Linked Experimental Ecosystem Facility but he didn’t want to be an environmentalist in the beginning. As he explained when I interviewed him at the facility, Jerde first went to college majoring in mathematics. Then about five years ago, he met David Lodge, who is a professor of biological sciences at Notre Dame.
Lodge asked him to do research on the Asian carp species, which are now threatening the Great Lakes and other water bodies worldwide. Asian carp got into the Mississippi River when it flooded and they escaped from fish farms in Arkansas, where they had been brought to clean up the water on fish farms. Environmentalists fear if they get into Lake Michigan, they could have a devastating effect. There are already 185 invasive species in the Great Lakes.
Only a few Asian carp have been found in the Great Lakes, so the point of the eDNA test is to discover if there really are Asian carp populations in Lake Michigan.
But the big question is, what is eDNA? Jerde explains that it is something that “is not in its normal physical state – a residual from an organism, exposed to the environment.” That’s why a hair on your head is not eDNA, but once you pull it out and drop it on the floor, it is eDNA.
There is controversy over whether Asian carp have gotten into Lake Michigan or close by. Jerde’s tests will help us find out. The stakes are high: The government has already spent about $10 million on an electric barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to keep Asian carp out.
Eating Asian Carp?
At a separate meeting with my journalism group, I met 71-year-old Freda Harris, grandmother of Jarimah Dilworth, one of my fellow students on our trip to Notre Dame. Harris shared memories of when she was a child and ate a type of carp, probably the type known as common carp. Harris used to live on 30th Street and Ellis Avenue, in the Bronzeville neighborhood.
“When I was a kid, in the 50′s, they didn’t call them Asian carp, they just called them carp, and they were sold in fish markets,” she said. “There were a great deal of them, and they were much cheaper than other food.”
While common carp is not considered a harmful invasive species like Asian carp, the taste is probably similar. I got the impression that Harris’s family was very fond of the carp they ate.
“As a child, I ate whatever my parents gave me. We didn’t eat any other meat on Fridays except fish,” said Harris.
I asked Harris how it tasted.
“It was fried, never baked or boiled. I remember it being very good, without many bones,” she said.
Even though Harris enjoyed eating common carp as a kid, she agreed with the eradication of Asian carp from the U.S.
“They’ve been causing a lot of problems in other places and we wouldn’t want them causing problems here in Illinois’ water,” said Harris.
Many Chinese people consider Asian carp a delicacy and a few companies have tried to market it in the U.S., partly as a way to motivate fishermen to catch it and reduce the Asian carp population. But despite Harris’s experience as a kid, most Americans don’t like the taste of Asian carp. Jerde’s wife has eaten Asian carp but she is not a fan.
“It tasted like mushy nothingness meat and it left me with a nasty aftertaste in my mouth,” said Mrs. Jerde.
Journalism and Asian Carp
After meeting with Jerde, Dave Poulson from Michigan State University’s Environmental Journalism Department brought us to Innovation Park near the campus and we met up with Heather Asiala, who gave us a wonderful tour. The whole concept of the Innovation Center is to be environmentally friendly – and indeed it is. Asiala explained the architecture used to construct the building. The walls can be moved to form different configurations, and the heat and air conditioning turn on automatically depending on motion sensors.
At the end of the tour, Asiala directed the group to a presentation room with Poulson. We went over everything we explored on campus and some of the things he teaches his college students. He started his presentation by asking a big question: “What exactly is journalism?” and then showed us three different videos on the theme of “wacky ways to experiment with journalism.”
He talked about how creative techniques are important to tell difficult stories like that of Asian carp. He also talked about using metaphors to get complicated ideas across. For example, he compared Jerde’s equipment for the eDNA test to making coffee with a filter.
Poulson’s presentation was very inspiring and he also analyzed one of my previously posted online articles about fracking. Being a young journalist, I needed that feedback from someone far more experienced and I really appreciated his constructive criticism as well as the praise. Now Poulson has me experimenting with my own wacky ways of all types of journalism.
Tags: Asian Carp, community, Great Lakes, Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, McCormick Environmental Journalism Program, the enviornment, youth
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