Last August, Philippe Parola was fishing in a bayou near Pierre Part, in southwestern Louisiana. Parola, a French chef who came to the United States in early 1980s, had been asked by producers from the Food Network program Extreme Cuisine with Jeff Corwin to catch an alligator gar, a toothy fish popular with sport fishermen in the region.
Just after heading out onto the water, Parola and his guide were suddenly joined by an unexpected guest. "Literally minutes from the landing, this 25-pound fish jumped out of the water and landed right on a seat in the boat," Parola recalled. "I was like, what the hell? And then we looked behind us and there were another 50 or 100 fish jumping everywhere."
Parola was witnessing an event that is increasingly common in the waters of the Mississippi River Valley: the frenzied leaping of Asian silver carp. Silver carp, along with three related Asian carp species, are not native to the U.S. and are designated as an "aquatic invasive species." They are prolific eaters, capable of consuming huge quantities of plant and animal plankton. And they grow very big, very quickly: one of the species, the bighead carp, can reach five feet in length and weigh more than 100 pounds.
Silver carp, like the one that jumped into Parola's boat, can grow to about three feet in length, and can weigh as much as 60 pounds. For reasons no one quite understands, they are intensely agitated by boat engines and respond by jumping out of the water, sometimes as high as eight feet. This poses a fairly serious (though sometimes humorous) risk for fishermen and boaters.
"I've been hit hard," said Duane Chapman, a fish biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and one of the foremost American experts on Asian carp. Chapman, who is based in Missouri, installed nets around his boat to protect himself. But that didn't work quite well enough. One time, he recalled, "a really large one came out from behind me. I heard it come out of the water, and I turned a little bit. The son of a gun cleared the net and hit me right above the teeth. I tell you, my neck hurt for two weeks. It was like getting hit by a bowling ball." Chapman decided to install a Plexiglas shield. [Curator's note: To see similarâbut perhaps slightly funnyâdamage, watch the first minute of this video.]
Asian carp present an even graver threat to the economy and the environment. Their massive appetite is the reason they were originally imported in the 1970s, by fish farmers in the southern U.S. who used the carp to clean out waste material and unwanted growth from retention ponds. But the carp soon escaped and slowly began establishing populations in the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The catastrophic Mississippi flooding of 1993 spurred that process by providing more spawning opportunities.
By the end of the 1990s, Asian carp had become a serious problem. The carp's insatiability has disrupted the food chain, eliminating food sources for crucial native fish like the bighead buffalo. And the carp grow so quickly that they are less vulnerable to predators than many native competitors. In the past 10 years, the carp have steadily made their way north, complicating life for commercial and recreational fishermenâespecially in the Illinois River, which has proven to be a particularly good habitat.
Now, the main concern is that the carp are poised to enter the Great Lakes through a series of manmade canals in the Chicago area that unnaturally connect the Mississippi River Basin to Lake Michigan. An Asian carp population in the Great Lakes could prove far more damaging than the presence in the Mississippi Valley. The carp would be a major threat to walleyes, a lynchpin of the $7 billion-a-year Great Lakes fishing industry.
Last month, the Obama administration announced a $78.5 million initiative intended to prevent Asian carp from establishing a population in the Great Lakes. The plan involves reducing the amount of time the Chicago-area canal locks stay open; enhancing physical and electric barriers intended to keep the fish out; increasing efforts to catch and kill the fish; and more research into the feasibility of permanently closing the canalsâan option strenuously opposed by the state of Illinois and a number of influential industrial and shipping interests.
The federal anti-carp initiative also includes $3 million in funding for "commercial market enhancements"âefforts to get people to buy and eat Asian carp, with the hope that a market for the fish will help limit its population. The chief obstacle is that people generally assume that Asian carp is similar to the common carp, a foul-smelling bottom feeder that very few Americans enjoy eating. In fact, the two types of fish share very few characteristics. But will it be possible to "re-brand" Asian carp?
nutria , a voracious swamp rodent that looks like a cross between a rat and a beaver.
Parola had heard about the problems Asian carp was causing, and decided to see if it might be a candidate for re-branding. He took the fish that jumped into his boat to a friend's kitchen to test it. "I cut it up and cooked it up, and to my real surprise, it was an unbelievable fish," he said. "It's like eating jumbo lump crab meat when you eat that fish. It's amazing."
As a self-appointed spokesman of sorts for a new effort to promote Asian carp in Louisiana, Parola is hardly a disinterested critic. But it's true that Asian carp is considered an excellent eating fish in many parts of the world, especially China. "I've eaten them many, many times in China," Chapman, the fish biologist, said. "They'll take the fish and steam it with peppers. It's really good."
However, in addition to its name, Asian carp has another major problem. "It's an extremely bony fish," Parola admitted. The carp's complex bone structure makes it impossible to filet in a traditional manner—making it difficult to see how it could win many converts in the American market. "In China, you don't pick other people's bones for them, unless they're babies, because they want people to learn how to do it," Chapman explained. "But in our country, people don't know how to pick bones."
Still, Parola felt the fish was marketable. He got in touch with Gary Tilyou, an administrator at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries with whom he had worked on the ill-fated nutria campaign. Together, they devised a promotional strategy that tries to address the Asian carp's shortcomings. To get around the bone problem, they decided to initially market the carp for use in processed "fish products" like fish cakes and fish soups. They also taught suppliers methods of cutting the fish that yield relatively bone-free portions of flesh for cooking.
At the same time, to reduce its association with the common carp, they decided to give the fish a new name: silverfin. "I don't think we need to mislead anybody, but [carp] is a bad name," Tilyou said. This sort of fish renaming has worked well before: before it was introduced to American consumers in the 1990s, the beloved Chilean sea bass was known as Patagonian toothfish. (Apparently, Asian carp will not enjoy as thorough a makeover. According to Tilyou, retail fish markets will still have to label the flesh as carp.)
At first glance, the plan has a certain lemonade-out-of-lemons appeal. But something about it struck me as odd: wouldn't creating a market for Asian carp conflict with the goal of eliminating it? "There's an inherent contradiction if someone is trying to say, 'We're going to create a market in order to eradicate it,'" pointed out David Lodge, a biologist at the University of Notre Dame who has researched the spread of Asian carp. Lodge described the plan to increase commercial demand as a double-edged sword. "If there's an abundant fish that we can make attractive to humans, then let's derive some more benefit from it," he said. "But the other edge of the sword is this: as soon as there is an incentive to harvest this fish, there is also an incentive to create populations of it, or start populations of it elsewhere." In other words, if efforts to promote Asian carp as food are successful, other rivers and lakes could soon be threatened.
The Louisiana Asian carp campaign began in earnest last month, when the state started supplying fish wholesalers with low-cost Asian carp and encouraged them to bring it to the retail market. One of the participating wholesalers is the Louisiana Seafood Exchange. Rob Walker, one of the company's owners, told me that after some experimenting, they had opted to supply their customers with carp steaks. "When you grill it, or pan-sear it, or bake it, once that meat stakes to flake off, you can use a fork to navigate around the bones," Walker said. But he told his customers they should warn shoppers that "you're never going to be able to dig in, grab a big chunk and go straight down with it."
Given the low price at which the state provided the fish, Walker was practically giving it away to his retailers. Assuming the trial run is successful, Walker believes it could eventually sell for about $1.75 per pound, which would make it one of the cheapest food fishes available.
Walker told me his company had delivered some carp steaks to a Breaux Mart supermarket in New Orleans, where I live. Last week, I met up with Brad Horton, the friendly and knowledgeable manager of the store's meat and fish department. Horton had decided to give the fish a trial run, but he was extremely skeptical. He had put the fish out in the display case but hadn't managed to sell a single piece. He told me that a couple of customers had commented, "Isn't that the trash fish they're trying to get rid of?" After two days, he decided to take it off the shelf.
Horton led me into a cold-storage room and picked up a package with a couple of carp steaks wrapped inside. "It doesn't look very good to me," he said. I had to agree. The flesh looked quite bloody and rather dark, and it was possible to feel the bones in the fish just by holding it. Horton shook his head. "Honestly," he said, "I don't plan to carry it unless customers start asking for it."
I bought two steaks for the bargain-basement price of 99 cents per pound, for a total of $1.47. With low expectations, I took them home and soaked them for a bit in a marinade of lime juice, Dijon mustard, dark sesame oil, soy sauce, and fresh ginger.
As I handled the fish, I became more optimistic: the flesh was firm but felt tender, and there was actually no blood at all. Also, the fish gave off remarkably little odor. Duane Chapman, the fish biologist, had recommended grilling the steaks, so I laid the fish on the grill and hoped for the best.
My verdict? Very tasty. It's firm and moist, with a very mild flavor. Its consistency wasn't great: a bit dense. But if I had to compare it to another fish, I would pick cod. It's not an exact match, to be sure, but not too far off. (One thing it definitely did not taste like was jumbo lump crab meat.)
And, in truth, the bones were a real impediment. The fish is simply full of them, and I found that the flesh did not flake much. Basically, you put in your fork, pull out a piece of fish, and just see what happens. The problem is that each mouthful requires your undivided attention, so that you don't choke. Meanwhile, the fish gets cold while you eat.
That said, for 99 cents a pound, it was hard to complain.