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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Invasive Asian carp take flight when craft move through the water, a threat for fishermen and boaters.

Culinary carp: Finding uses for a nuisance fish

by Mitch Smith
Nov 08, 2012


Mitch Smith/MEDILL

Asian carp burger patties are available at Dirk's Fish and Gourmet Shop in Lincoln Park.

Palos Park fisherman Ed DeVries pops an Asian carp filet in a vegetable steamer, adds some ginger, mixes in chopped green onion and tops it all off with a dash of teriyaki sauce.

“They’re delicious,” said DeVries, president of the Bowfishing Association of Illinois. “In my opinion, it’s one of the top five fish to eat. I’ll put them up against crappie and walleye.”

DeVries’ dinner of choice is so plentiful in the Illinois River these days that the jumping fish sometimes save sportsmen the trouble of needing a fishing rod.

But Asian carp are an invasive species. Without natural predators, the carp are disrupting ecosystems in the Illinois River and other waterways they’ve colonized. Now, after years of warning about the ills of the fish’s migration and potential threat to the Great Lakes, businesses and conservationists are adopting a pragmatic approach to reducing the population.

The fish are being made into fertilizer, served to zoo animals and ground into burger patties – all in the name of curbing their spread. The idea is – if you can’t beat ’em, at least you can eat ’em.

Conservation officials have warned about the carp for years. The fish have colonized rivers across parts of the Northeast and Midwest, including some that feed into the Great Lakes. While electric barriers are supposed to stop the carp from infiltrating Lake Michigan – and apparently have succeeded to this point – three states have sued Illinois. The pending lawsuit demands that the shipping locks on the Chicago River be closed permanently to stop the carp’s advance.

To be sure, eating carp for dinner won’t completely solve the problem. But building demand for Asian carp could reduce the population and create economic opportunity for fishermen whoe see the carp choking the population of other, more widely eaten fish.

But there are barriers to making Asian carp an Illinois delicacy. Renowned for their flaky texture and popular among diners in Asia, the carp are tremendously bony. That’s a turnoff for American palates accustomed to boneless, breaded seafood.

DeVries, of the bowfishing association, said he doesn’t mind the bones. Members of his association have posted some of their favorite Asian carp recipes online.

“They remind most people of cod,” DeVries said. “Light flaky fish — no real strong flavor at all. The only trouble right now is that restaurants will have a hard time selling them until they get the bones out.”

Dirk Fucik, owner of Dirk’s Fish and Gourmet Shop in Lincoln Park, started selling Asian carp a couple years ago. But rather than offering bony filets, Fucik grounds the fish into patties and seasons them with oregano and other spices. Customers can buy two patties for about $8.

Fucik often grills the carp, which he buys from a fishery in Peoria, outside his store on weekends.

“It’s a good fish and I think people just aren’t familiar with it,” he said.

Some of that stigma arises because many Americans associate carp with a bottom-feeder species avoided because of its muddy taste. Asian carp are members of a different species with a completely different taste, Fucik said.

Though it remains a niche product, other businesses have started making the fish into plant fertilizer. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources offered mini Asian carp burgers for free at last summer’s Taste of Chicago.

Also, amid news that traces of carp environmental DNA had been found near Lake Michigan, the Brookfield Zoo agreed to feed some of its birds Asian carp for 10 days this fall. U.S. Geological Survey researchers then planned to analyze the bird droppings to see if they contained carp DNA.

Conservation officials are worried that some carp may have moved past the electric barrier. If researchers discover that birds that eat Asian carp on downstate waterways keep the fish’s DNA in their digestive systems, it could explain how those traces turned up miles from Lake Michigan. Results aren't available as yet.

“One of the reasons we really wanted to help with this study is the potential ecological implications of the situation,” said Jason Watters, who runs the zoo’s biological research steering committee. “There is a possibility that these carp, which are potentially highly invasive, could skew the ecosystem in our area so that they sort of throw off the food dynamics.”

That concern is at the root of most efforts to eat, study and sell the carp.

“It’s a good fish and it’s a problem and it’s not going away,” Fucik said. “If we can find a way to have people want it and create a market for it, that’s a big step in the right direction.”