The Asian carp, a species of fish brought from China to the U.S. several decades ago, is a growing concern in the midwest state of Illinois. The number of Asian carp in the state’s waterways has soared in recent years, choking out many native fish species. But state officials hope to solve the problem, and also strike a blow against local hunger, by changing public attitudes about the much-maligned fish.
Asian carp found in the Illinois River are large, much too plentiful, and, says Travis Loyd, deputy director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "It’s ugly. The fish is predominantly not a pretty fish," he said.
But Louisiana chef Philippe Parola strongly disagrees. "This fish is just as good-looking as a salmon or a lake trout or any others. So quit calling it ugly because it’s not ugly," he said.
No matter how the fish looks, Parola and fellow chef Tim Creehan are teaming up with Illinois state officials in a campaign to whet the public's appetite for the Asian carp. "It’s very palatable and very pleasing when you taste it," he said.
"We’ve got to show people that this fish tastes good. It can be worked with preparation wise, and this fish can be very servable and very edible in every capacity," said Loyd.
Asian carp is widely consumed in China, but most fish-eaters in the United States avoid it because they confuse it with native carp. These fish are bottom-feeders that many people believe are contaminated by toxic pollutants, including mercury. But Asian carp, which are not really carp at all, feed on plankton and algae near the surface of rivers and lakes. That is why they're often seen jumping out of the water.
Travis Loyd says Asian carp is a clean fish, with low levels of mercury, that’s safe to eat. "We’ve tested it - the levels are in most cases nil, and it is the safest fish," he said.
Another reason many Americans avoid eating Asian carp is that it is bony, difficult to fillet and hard to sell in fresh fish markets. But Chef Creehan says when the fish is cooked, the bones come out easily, enabling food processors to package it as a ready-to-serve product.
Better still, says Creehan: Asian carp is cheap. "The average price per pound of ocean fish is $6 a pound (or about $13 per kilogram) whole. This is looking at 12 to 20 cents (per pound, or about 26 to 40 cents per kilogram). So this is so affordable," he said.
Travis Loyd hopes greater interest in Asian carp as a food product will cause it to be more heavily fished out of lakes and streams. He says that would not only reduce pressure on native fish species and the fragile Great Lakes ecosystem, but would also provide an economic boost at a time when unemployment in Illinois is high. "We recognize this could create a lot of jobs. It could bring back commercial fishing in Illinois. It could absolutely help our food insecurity if we could come up with a product viable (enough) to go through the food bank system, and possibly into the diets of school systems, prison systems, things of that nature," he said.
It could take some time before consumers see Asian carp on the menu in restaurants or in grocery store freezers. In fact, they may not see "Asian carp" at all, if Chef Parola is successful. He has licensed the term "silverfin" and hopes the name catches on in the campaign to give this invasive fish a new image.