May 7, 2012
By Tim Campbell
I have a pretty lengthy job title. Officially, I am an “Aquatic Invasive Species Outreach Specialist.” When people ask what I do, I usually start with, “I do aquatic invasive species outreach for the Sea Grant program.” I wait for the blank stares that predictably come with that statement, and then say that I do a lot of education work with zebra mussels and Asian carp. This usually causes the light bulb to go on, and I know I have the person on board when they reply with, “Oh, you work with the jumping carp?!?”
Everyone knows about the jumping carp.
This conversation played out on April 24 when I made a trip down to Chicago for a Great Lakes Sustainable Seafood and Invasive Species Dinner organized by Slow Food Chicago. I arrived at Dirk’s Fish and Gourmet Shop early, but there was already a decent crowd of people in the small shop. There were four rows of four chairs each, with a few tables on the periphery that the couples in attendance had already claimed. I took a seat in the back row, and the program started promptly.
Jeanie Boutelle of Slow Food Chicago kicked things off. She welcomed us, and then briefly explained the idea of “slow food.” Slow food is essentially the opposite of fast food; cooking meals with local items. Jeanie believes sustainable Great Lakes seafood is a valuable resource for those of us in the Basin, and that we should all embrace the wonderful food options our location provides us.
Kaissa Perpich of the Shedd Aquarium Rite Bite program was up next. She explained how the aquarium’s Rite Bite program promotes sustainable seafood use, and how we could all use its recommendations to inform our seafood decisions. The focus then shifted from the Rite Bite program to Dirk and his fish shop, where all the fish sold are in line with sustainable sea food guidelines. Dirk spoke for a while about his shop and his interest in the Great Lakes, but when he opened it up for questions, the aquatic invasive species outreach specialist in me smiled. All the questions were about Asian carp.
It was a very interesting crowd. The concerns and questions coming from a group of “foodies” were different than what I usually get. Instead of getting bombarded with questions about the ecology of Asian carp and what is being done to control them, the foodies wanted to know the best way to prepare the fish and what needed to be done to establish a market for them. Dirk answered the questions without missing a beat. Grinding the meat of Asian carp provided the chef with the most options, since grinding eliminated the bones. The ground meat could then be used in nearly any recipe. Steaking out the fish (using a cross-section as opposed to a filet) was the best way to grill Asian carp. This apparently allows the diner to pick out the bones more easily. As far as creating a market? Dirk and his wife Terry (the so called “fish diva chef”), think their customers trust them enough that if there were ground Asian carp in their market and they provided a recipe for it, their customers would buy it. I don’t think anyone in attendance questioned their claim, but at this point, they brought out the food so that we could all develop our own opinions.
The menu included many native and invasive fish options for our dining pleasure. While I was there for the Asian carp, all of the other options were delicious. We had lake trout and whitefish cooked multiple ways, in addition to some walleye, and, as I heard them called, “fries with eyes” (panko fried smelt). The star of the night, though, was Asian carp. The carp croquettes, burgers and tacos were all amazing. I could bore you with my inaccurate descriptions of texture and taste, but let me summarize it with this: It was delicious, I want to eat it again, and not once did I think, “this would be better if it were beef.” I only managed to get through two plates of food, but that was more due to my chattiness than anything else. I overheard people sheepishly admitting to rounds three and four, so I think everyone else enjoyed it at least as much as I did. Before I realized it, I was one of the last people in the shop, and it was time to hit the road.
What did I take home from the dinner, aside from a few extra Asian carp croquettes and Asian carp taco meat? The most obvious thing I learned was that Asian carp is tasty, and its palatability certainly is not the reason we are not eating this fish. Even if the bones prevent everyday chefs like me from dealing with Asian carp, I could certainly go buy ground Asian carp from a fish market, or it could be used in fish value-added products such as fish sticks. Any of these options would certainly make a dent in the estimated 3.1 million pounds of Asian carp produced in the Illinois River in 2011. I also learned that people want to be eating Asian carp, especially if it would help keep them out of the Great Lakes. From the foodie perspective, keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes helps ensure the sustainability of the other tasty things we ate that night. Eat something tasty to help protect other tasty things? That sounds like a victory for all of our taste buds. Why aren’t we eating more Asian carp then?
A quick look at the recently released report, “Fishing Down the Bighead and Silver Carps: Reducing the Risk of Invasion to the Great Lakes,” suggests two reasons. The first is that infrastructure for Asian carp processing is lacking in the region. Better infrastructure would help get the fish to consumers in all the different usable forms. The second reason has to do with the size of the carp population. According to the report, the Illinois River Asian carp population is between a rock and a hard place. In several sections of the Illinois River, there are too many fish for public-sponsored control by agencies to be cost effective, but not enough for development of a long-term market. Additionally, creating a market for Asian carp could encourage people to introduce them elsewhere so that they could harvest them. I think we could all agree that we don’t want to create a situation where people would find it beneficial to be transporting and introducing Asian carp.
Managers are unlikely to come up with the solution overnight. There are a lot of other promising control mechanisms currently being researched, but as of right now, fishing for Asian carp is the only way we can reduce the number of Asian carp in the Illinois River. The fewer Asian carp there are in the Illinois River, the fewer there are bumping up against the barrier that is in place to repel them from entering Lake Michigan. Fishing down the populations of Asian carp can help create a stopgap situation until a more permanent solution can be found. The byproduct of this conservation work is a dinner that I would look forward to eating.