Asian Carp

To Eat or Not to Eat? That is the Question

story by ASHLEY WETHEY, LDWF Public Information

A new trend taking hold throughout the country is a movement to bring local and sustainable food back to our restaurants and homes. Particularly in the restaurant world, eating “local” is becoming more prevalent.

In just the past few years, the growing popularity of foraging, increased interest in sustainability, and an explosion of foodies who want to try new things have set the tone for this new type of culinary experience.

Chef Philippe Parola, French celebrity chef, brings a whole new meaning to the concept. He’s spent recent years in a history-making effort to transform the invasive species, Asian carp, into a delectable dish.

Asian carp is the catch-all name for a variety of species (including bighead, grass, silver and black carp), and here in Louisiana, these fish fall into the nuisance category.

Asian carp were brought to the United States decades ago to be used primarily in aquaculture and wastewater treatment systems as a control method for algae, parasitic grubs and snails. Subsequently, some fish escaped and spread downstream to rivers and lakes during flooding in the 1980s and 90s and were introduced into the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

The Asian carp population in the Mississippi River Basin is growing fast and virtually unstoppable. Since their introduction, Asian carp have exploded in population and strained ecological resources for native species of commercial and recreational fish. An adult, female Asian carp can spawn more than 1 million eggs per year with up to 80 percent of those eggs hatching and surviving. In the rivers of the northern states of the Mississippi River Basin, including Illinois, studies show that there are 35 tons of Asian carp per river mile. Another 10 to 15 years of non-action will put Louisiana in a similar situation. Currently, the greatest concentrations of carp in Louisiana waterbodies include the Atchafalaya Basin, Black, Mississippi, Ouachita and Red rivers and associated oxbows and backwaters.

As fellow plankton eaters, Asian carp compete with native fish, including big mouth buffalo, gizzard shad and paddlefish, for food. Aggressive and fast-growing, they also compete with native fish for spawning and habitat space - Asian carp can grow to sizes of 40 pounds or more.

Asian carp also pose a hazard to boaters and have been known to jump into boats when the water is agitated by boat motors, causing injuries and even a few fatalities.

“No one is targeting these fish,” explained LDWF invasive species biologist Bobby Reed. “Currently, no angler has any interest in recreationally fishing for them. Unfortunately, indications are they are far more numerous than they were a decade ago, with populations increasing and expanding annually, especially during flood years,” said Reed. “The situation is likely to worsen unless disease or some other catastrophic event sets populations back.”

Parola is confident that once people get a taste of SilverfinTM, a name he’s used to rebrand the fish, people can be counted on to do what they’ve always done with appetizing fish: plate them up. Best of all, it’s a species you can feel good about harvesting. “Can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em,” is his slogan for the effort.

Parola was born in France during its lean, post-war years. “Grocery stores were not all over the place in France,” Parola notes. Fishing and hunting wild game was still a way for his community, in the countryside around Paris, to put food on the table. He even remembers eating common carp, a bottom-feeding fish notorious for tasting something like mud.

“After being bled, carp meat is firm and white,” explained Parola. “The meat is a good source of vitamin B12, Omega-3 and many other healthy nutrients. There is no better time to introduce a new and healthy domestic, wild-caught fish product on American dining tables.”

Although the idea is relatively new, Parola is no stranger to the concept of campaigning for consumption of invasives. He campaigned for five years to promote nutria as a protein source. Unfortunately, the nutria industry was nipped in the bud. To be sold across state lines, the FDA requires that mammals be caught alive and killed in slaughterhouses as opposed to being hunted, a much more difficult task. The nutria’s faint similarity to rats didn’t help, either. Few people want to eat what they consider vermin.

This time around he is partnering with officials from Illinois and Louisiana including Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Jack Montoucet and Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser, to showcase and encourage the consumption of Asian carp as a healthy food source in America.

“We see this effort by Chef Parola as a means of limiting the expansion of this unwanted species in the waterways of Louisiana,” Montoucet said. “If it can be turned into jobs for Louisiana while at the same time fighting the growth of the species, then it is a win-win for us.”

But it hasn’t been smooth sailing for Parola since the idea was first conceived. Processing the fish poses a difficult challenge because it is riddled with very small bones. Failing to have the capacity to process the fish in the United States, the fish is being sent to Vietnam for processing and shipped back to the United States to be sold to restaurants, grocery stores, etc. as a fish cake.

Including fishermen, Parola’s company Silverfin Group, Inc., currently employs around 100 people. SYSCO, America’s largest food distributor, has signed on as the product’s first customer.

Has Parola found the silver bullet to American’s carp invasion? Unfortunately, Reed thinks not. “The best fisheries population biologists in America say that even if we were able to fish them down to about 20 percent of the current levels, they would rebound rapidly if we stopped commercial fishing,” he explained. “But any removal of invasive species from our waters is a help.”

Perhaps this is at least a good start while fisheries biologists continue to diligently work to discover a long-term solution. Until then, Parola hopes you’ll be a little more open-minded before turning your nose up at a delicious, SilverfinTM patty.

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