by Stephen Klobucar, article originally published on themeateater.com (September 2019), excerpt republished with permission
Our culture loves comebacks, Cinderella stories, and diamonds in the rough. Take for instance, the story of a sweater purchased at a North Carolina thrift shop for 58 cents in 2014. Turns out, the sweater originally belonged to legendary football coach Vince Lombardi. A year later, that sweater sold at auction for $43,020. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”—an old adage, slightly stale, but no less true.
Trash vs. treasure—a dangerous and capricious conceptual binary. A moth-eaten sweater goes from fetid to fortune based on whose sweat has been washed out of it. Certain shiny rocks are precious, others worthless weight. Some fish are iconic; people spend their whole lives and literal fortunes to catch the right ones. Others, depending on your perspective, are considered aquatic refuse, unworthy of the molecules they monopolize or the water they displace.
Names matter. 42 of the 76 North American sucker species are endangered, threatened, of special concern, or extinct. And other native fishes including gars, bowfin, and drum are not officially designated as “game fish.” Instead, they get lumped into a category of maligned undesirables under the umbrella “trash fish.” This distinction is more than just semantic: Species recognized as game fish are managed differently by state and federal agencies. They get money and attention that other species don’t.