The Asian carp has few allies in the U.S., but executive chef Phillip Foss was an exception. He drew national media coverage in spring 2010, after adding the invasive fish to his dinner menu at Lockwood restaurant, inside Chicago’s elegant Palmer House. The fish showed up several ways—baked in a delicate shell of potatoes; broiled and paired with grilled fennel; and marinated in lime as a ceviche—and earned positive reviews. Sometimes Foss renamed the carp “Shanghai bass,” which had a more palatable ring. But by the time Foss left the iconic hotel inside Chicago’s “Loop” to begin a mobile food business (“The Meatyballs Mobile”), even he was downplaying his Asian carp culinary experiments.Foss and other fine dining chefs say Asian carp meat is flaky, mild in flavor and pleasant in texture but hard to work with because it’s not an easy fish to filet. When Foss gives it a try on YouTube, he eventually tosses aside filet knives and uses a cleaver to defiantly whack away at thick bone.Within six months after its fine-dining debut, Asian carp quietly disappeared from Lockwood’s menu altogether, while hoards of environmentalists and government officials continued their years-long debate about how to help the fish perform another kind of vanishing act. They want it out of the Mississippi River’s tributaries so the fish can’t settle into the Great Lakes, home to 20% of the world’s freshwater supply.Two types of Asian carp—bighead and silver, both belonging to the minnow family—can weigh up to 100 pounds and eat up to 20% of their weight in a day. Their penchant for planktonic algae threatens to grossly imbalance whatever aquatic ecosystem they encounter. These fish can spawn multiple times per year, beginning as young as age two and continuing until near death, up to age 20.
At potential risk are all the Lakes’ freshwater fish and aquatic life as well as the $7 billion commercial fishing and Great Lakes sports fishing industries that depend on them. And the skittish silver carp pose a menace to boaters. The fish are known for jumping high out of the water and sometimes into boats. The flip-flopping looks comical on film but can damage property and feels like being hit by a flying brick.
Silver and bighead carp were imported from southeast Asia by U.S. catfish farmers in the 1970s to keep fish ponds clean. Severe flooding in the 1990s pushed some of these fish into the Mississippi River Basin. Besides humans, the fish has few U.S. predators. Pelicans and eagles indulge in the younger fish, but no North American freshwater fish is big enough to eat mature Asian carp.
The U.S. commercial catch of bighead carp increased from 5.5 tons to 55 tons per year from 1994 to 1997. Now an estimated 12.5 tons of bighead and silver carp are caught per day through hoop netting and electrofishing, says the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee (ACRCC), a consortium of local, state and federal government agencies.
Much has already has been done to fight the fish. Electric barriers on the Illinois River, about 40 miles from Lake Michigan, attempt to stymie mass migration. Poisoning a six-mile stretch of river southwest of Chicago in late 2009 killed 90 tons of fish—but almost no Asian carp. Five states—Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania—have united to fight for closure of shipping locks in the Chicago area, a proposal that enrages the shipping industry.Myriad other ideas—explosives, alarm pheromones, thermal barriers, acoustic and bubble barriers with strobe lights, infiltrations of clove oil, chlorine or other chemicals—have been floated but not pursued because of expense, ineffectiveness or environmental impact. Also deemed unfeasible: disrupting water temperatures, river flow, water levels or water content. One rejected idea—adding nitrogen to deplete the oxygen supply to fish—would cost $250,000 per day on the Illinois River.“I wouldn’t despair,” says Bill Horns, a Great Lakes fisheries specialist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “It may be that [Asian carp] won’t be able to establish themselves in the Great Lakes. They have to find long rivers to spawn in and may have other challenges.” Horn and others think there should be “permanent basin separation” between the Great Lakes and Mississippi drainage network.Asian carp species aren’t the first to threaten the biological and economic health of the Great Lakes. Zebra mussels, sea lampreys and fishhook water fleas are among the 180-plus invasive species that have found their way into the Great Lakes since the start of the 19th century. The 82-page “Asian Carp Control Strategy Framework,” from the ACRCC, adds this: “Asian carp are the most recent, but certainly not the last aggressive invasive species to threaten” the waterways. “…[I]t is clear a more robust long-term solution is needed” because the “Great Lakes food web has been significantly degraded in recent decades.”Not everybody is at odds with the Asian carp. The fish comprise 50% of business (up from 25%, in 2006) at Schafer Fisheries, a Thomson, Illinois, family-owned processing plant. Al-most all of this harvest—around 12 million pounds in 2010—is exported to Asian and Eastern European countries, Israel and the Dominican Republic.
“The omega proteins in it are better than some species of salmon,” says owner Mike Schafer, “and we have high hopes of expanding into institutional sales—to nursing homes, prisons, schools—but we just keep struggling.” It’s hard for Asian carp to shake its negative image. His company aims to partner with celebrity chef Michael Yan, a native of China, to brand U.S. Asian carp as a gourmet product.
“It’s more expensive than a rack of lamb in some Asian restaurants,” says Houston business consultant Lou Jullien, who is working on behalf of Schafer Fisheries. That’s because the U.S. product lives in relatively clear waters compared to Asia. In Israel, political tension and hefty tariffs challenge business deals. In New Orleans, chef Philippe Parola considers it his mission to develop an edible market for “invasive and nuisance species.” This includes snow geese, wild boar, alligator and—yes—the flying silver carp (which he refers to as “silver fin”).
Schafer says the answer to the Asian carp problem is more commercial fishing and education about how to prepare the fish for consumption. “We have solutions, but no one is listening, and it’s very disappointing to us,” he says.