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  • August 28th, 2020

EAT YOUR CARP–IT’S GOOD FOR YOU

By Joel M. Vance

 

If dried fish are nutritious enough to fuel a sled dog a thousand miles on the Iditarod, you’d think a similar diet would be nutritious enough to fuel the average commuter to his office and back.  Fish are good for you. Every morning I pop a couple of fish oil capsules at a doctor’s suggestion, and at least twice a week we eat fish, salmon or tilapia. But, if Dr. Mark Morgan of the University of Missouri prevails, the food that propels sled dogs and me will become even more of a staple on the American diet than it already is.

 

The best lunch I ever ate was a fish sandwich in the Florida Keys, fresh from the ocean to my plate and palate. And a Cajun po’ boy sandwich ranks right up there with fish gumbo as food fit to make gourmands groan and wish they hadn’t eaten so much.

 

“Carp tastes good and it’s good for you,” Mark says.  “I just didn’t know how good until recently.  I’ve served carp to probably thousands of Missourians over time. But you know they can be a fickle bunch, so I’m always looking for something new.”  The “new” sounds at  first hearing like something from a science fiction story but hear him out.

 

Dr. Morgan, associate professor in research at the University’s School of Natural Resources, has been on a multi-year crusade to awaken the American public to the nutritional value of the invasive Asian carp–a fish that is a destructive presence in many American waterways, but a neglected visitor to the American dinner menu.

 

Let Mark continue the story: ““I got a mini-grant from SNR and purchased some slabs, salted and smoked them at MU. I took some down to Haiti and fed them to some of the villagers.  Let me tell you, Haitians loved my carp.  Before I left, they wanted to know when I was going to return.  It made me feel bad that I had a real job, and carp wasn’t it.

 

“I have a team of scientists which is interested in helping me – – from MU, Vietnam, and South Africa. No money yet but I think that’s going to change soon. Two grant proposals are in now. One is for Haiti and one is for South Africa.  The iron content of the fish alone is enough to save the lives of disadvantaged women and children who suffer from anemia.”

 

The Caribbean nation of Haiti is a glaring example of national despair. Beset by poverty, malnutrition, suffering  recurring natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes. If ever there was a place that would welcome alleviation of any of its national miseries, Haiti is it.

 

Asian carp won’t cure poverty nor prevent hurricanes, but they do offer an opportunity to alleviate hunger.  Haiti has a population of 11,400,000 which is three million more than it had 20 years ago. About 59% of Haitians live in poverty and nearly half the population is undernourished. About 20% of Haitian children are malnourished suffering both physical and mental disabilities.  Obviously, there is an urgent need for nutritional aid.

 

Asian carp have most everything a person could ever want or need: protein, calcium, iron, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, and essential amino acids.  It’s even got good N-P-K numbers for organic fertilizer. Further analyses are in the plans.

 

“I have no idea what’s in this, but nobody else does either,” Mark says. “For the time being, I’m going to say it’s liquid gold. Hey, there’s no law against dreaming. Or, as Lum and Abner used to say, “dreaming out loud”  For those of you who are older than dirt, as I am, Lum and  Abner were a comedy team who had a radio program back in the nineteen forties where they dispensed rural wisdom From the Jot ‘Em Down store in Pine Ridge, Arkansas.

 

Before you dismiss Mark Morgan as someone who has overdosed on fish oil capsules, remember that a fish diet long has been considered brain food. Remember that long ago the tomato was considered poisonous. Attitudes change. So Mark’s biggest problem is not proving that Asian carp are good for you (he’s already done that) but that they are good to eat, in whatever form science can develop.  

 

The University of Minnesota has appropriated more than $10 million to study ways to prevent Asian carp from infesting the state’s rivers and lakes. More than seven million of the money is to install electrical or bubble barriers within lock chambers on the largest rivers to slow the invasive species upstream spread.

 

Does it make sense to invest at least some of that money in studying how to utilize Asian carp as food rather than a probably futile attempt to eradicate them?

 

Fisheries folks on Kentucky Lake used electro fishing and sound to herd silver carp into nets, hoping to trap more than a million pounds in two weeks, an effort that they described as “a drop in the bucket”. Netting the high jumping invaders should involve hazardous duty pay for the fisheries people involved. Corralling a 25 pound carp that doesn’t want to be corralled and which is capable of leaping into the air is like sending a grade school football team into the game against an NFL line.

 

So far state and federal agencies have spent about $600 million to stop Asian carp since 2004 and the estimated cost of projects already in the works are estimated at $1.5 billion over the next decade.

 

There certainly is no lack of Asian carp. The Missouri and Mississippi rivers both are infested with the fish and the Illinois River is virtually wall-to-wall with them–a boat trip on the Illinois is like traveling through a thunderstorm with the raindrops being jumping fish.   In 1848, the Mormons left Illinois only to encounter a plague of locusts in Utah, but today’s Illinois residents are dealing with a piscatorial plague, trading grasshoppers for Asian carp. Supposedly, seagulls swooped in to eat the locusts and save the Mormon crops. It’s probably too much to expect an armada of birds to miraculously appear (perhaps millions of fish eating eagles) to rid the Illinois and the other mid-America rivers of the Asian invaders.  The Illinois River has the largest concentration of Asian carp anywhere in the world. It’s reasonable to expect that, given time, the prolific invaders will find a way into every major waterway, at least in Mid-America, and into their tributaries as well.

 

There is no practical way to control them. Electric or other barriers merely slow their inevitable progress en route to dominating the biomass of a given river,  They compete with native species for food and territory and the loser in that grim game inevitably is the native fish.

 

Carp of all fish species are a widely utilized food in Asian countries and the common German carp, an alien species in this country for more than 100 years, is widely used by those in the know as good food. Scaled, gutted, filleted and scored it is a fine fish fry menu item, and for those who know how, a smoked carp makes a hard to beat canapé.

 

For information on how to prepare Asian carp for the plate, visit the Missouri Department of Conservation website at mdc.mo.gov and search for invasive carp control which will further lead you to YouTube videos on preparation and recipes for silver carp, the most numerous of the four invasive carp species now plaguing the nation’s major waterways (silver, bighead, black, and grass).

 

A hefty carp on the end of a fishing line offers a bulldog worthy tugging contest. I remember some years back when a hatch of periodic locusts inspired German carp to feed like piranhas and some anglers were able to catch them on fly rods, using bulky flies tied like fallen cicadas.

 

A fisheries biologist friend used cherry tomatoes as bait for grass carp, an invasive species that feeds almost exclusively on vegetation, and was successful in catching them. I ate some of the result smoked and it was delectable.  While you might catch the occasional grass carp with a cherry tomato, angling is no solution for the other Asian carp species–they don’t take bait, nor do they inhale a fly or an artificial lure.

 

Silver and bighead carp are “filter feeders” meaning they filter microscopic organisms in the water, rather than feeding on minnows, crayfish or other aquatic food preferred by most native fish species. But, for the sport minded angler, there are several ways to turn Asian carp collection into sport.

 

Perhaps the easiest way is to run your boat through a concentration of the fish and watch them drop into the boat as they leap. Might be best to wear a football helmet. Netting is the most productive, but hardly sporting–a meat gathering operation that will be the major method of large-scale harvesting if Asian carp ever become a viable food crop.

 

There is a weird hook and line method where a dough ball is inserted in a porous container studded with small hooks and suspended from a bobber. The dissolving bait attracts the carp who feed on microscopic particles of it and, you hope, gulp a hook in the process.

 

Bow hunters have been skewering German carp for decades. Since Asian carp tend to feed close to the surface, they are visible targets.

 

Bait for the common German carp traditionally is a dough ball which mostly consists of something like Wheaties (the Breakfast of Champions) mixed with a sweetener like sorghum molasses, and rolled into small bait balls. The upside of that is that if the fish aren’t biting, you can eat the bait. Anglers often seed a carp fishing hole ahead of time with canned corn or cottonseed cake, let it marinate for a day or two and then go back and fish. It’s a piscatorial version of shooting fish-in-a-barrel.

 

Leaping tarpon and sailfish have nothing on Asian carp when it comes to jumping free of the water. The carp leap when startled and there are reports of fatalities from collisions between airborne carp and people in the water.

 

In certain circumstances, associating with invasive carp, especially silver carp, is downright dangerous. Imagine barreling up or down a river in your speedboat when a silver carp leaps high in the air just in front of you. Being smacked in the face by 25 pounds of carp at 50 miles an hour is somewhat similar to having Al Capone pound you with a baseball bat the way he used to do his enemies back in gangster days.

 

Even if Asian carp never are turned into a featured entrée in upscale restaurants, there’s another possibility–their processed use as high quality fertilizer for food crops. Every little kid of my era learned in grade school history how the Native Americans told the first settlers how to bury fish in hills of maize to ensure a bumper crop. I used to bury the guts of fish in our garden for the same reason, until the dogs dug them up and rolled in them which curbed my enthusiasm for pioneer fertilization.

 

Carpe diem is Latin for “Seize the day” but in time that may translate to “Seize the carp”.  Might want to wear a first baseman’s glove, though.

 

 

 

 

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