It sounds like a horror movie – Invasion of the Asian Carp – and really, it is a bit of a horror story. Hundred-pound, 4-feet-long flying fish that smash into, or even jump into, boats. As is so often the case, the Asian carp invasion stemmed from the Law of Unintended Consequences. They were brought here deliberately, meant to stay safely in their ponds as cleaner fish. But some of them escaped and they’ve been moving north via the Mississippi ever since, infesting rivers as they go, including our own Wabash River. Can’t you almost hear suspenseful music playing in the background?
The problem with Asian carp is that they eat plankton at an astonishing rate, as much as 40 percent of their body weight every day, thus crowding out native species of fish that we like better. They are also prolific breeders. Fishermen have reported seeing a three/quarter mile stretch of the Wabash River crowded with spawning Asian carp from bank to bank.
Reuben Goforth, assistant professor of aquatic community ecology at Purdue University has been studying Asian carp in the Wabash River and even he is spooked by what he calls the carps’ “Jurassic Park” ability to adapt. He says that his team has discovered that the gills on some species of carp are changing, so that they are stronger. “They are not tied to specific water levels like we thought they were,” Goforth states. “They are not tied to spawning at a particular time of year like we thought they were. We’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Governments are trying to react. The federal government considers the carp such a threat that President Obama named a “Carp Czar”. Illinois built an electric barrier to try to keep the carp from entering Lake Michigan. Commercial fishermen have been hired by the government to remove 1,000 tons of Asian carp from the Illinois River. Researchers are trying to discover a carp-specific toxin though they say it would only be effective in a small area. Authorities are even considering reversing the flow of the Chicago River.
In the meantime, are Asian carp good for anything? Well, other countries consider them a delicacy and they are being served in restaurants in the U.S., particularly in the South. People who’ve eaten carp say it is a sweet, un-fishy-tasting meat, much like Talapia or Mahi-Mahi. And because carp don’t eat other fish, they don’t absorb pollutants the way some species do.
One problem is that since carp eat plankton, they are difficult to catch with a rod and reel and another is that they have a different bone structure than other fish we’re more familiar with so if you don’t take the time to do a little research, you’ll have a difficult time filleting them without bones. (There are videos on YouTube that instruct viewers on how to fillet carp).
Despite the complications, carp may eventually serve commercial fishermen as a viable product. Because they are abundant and cheap, carp may be an attractive alternative to fish that is more expensive.
Chef Phillipe Parola has made rather a specialty of carp dishes although he calls it by a more appetizing name, Silverfin. His website includes recipes for Silverfin Provencale, Silverfin Almondine, Silverfin Cakes and Silverfin Fried Strips.
We need to do something about the carp and people need to eat so we may as well try to combine those two needs until we can figure out a better way to rid ourselves of these undesirable invaders. I think our repulsion to them is mostly cultural. We eat a lot of things that are more distasteful. It seems to me that anyone who would eat mackerel or pigs feet or head cheese would give carp a try.
Vicki Williams is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached through the newspaper at email@example.com.