Cooking Invasive Species Like Asian Carp And
Lionfish

By Chris Landers
Published: August/September 2011

In the face of an invasion, sometimes you have to dig in.

The only mystery about the carp in the pond near Jackson Landers's parents' house in Free Union, Virginia, is how best to catch them. These carp had arrived without fanfare, Landers explains. Pointing at the neighbor's place, overlooking the pond, he says the folks next door just wanted the water cleared up, so they brought in the fish. This is a mini-version of the original tale of the Asian carp that have infested America's waterways, and threaten the Great Lakes — a catfish farmer (locations and times vary with the telling) imported the carp to clean his catfish ponds, they escaped, and have been taking over feeding grounds ever since.

Photo of Chef Philippe Parola offers a large Asian Carp to two fishermen
Photo: Chef Philippe Parola

Chef Philippe Parola offers a large Asian Carp to two fishermen. The success of the chef's larger plan hinges on fishermen and customers making a success of commercial carp fishing.

Here at the pond, there's no way out, so the carp provide a captive test group for Landers and his experiments. Today, he's fishing without success. The next step will involve a bow and arrow, and if that fails, a shotgun. If he has his way, then the carp will be caught and the carp will be prepared and the carp will be eaten. Not just the carp in this small pond, but all of them.

Landers (no relation to this writer), who writes a blog called Locavore Hunter, is a former vegetarian who teaches hunting classes, and his book, The Beginner's Guide to Deer Hunting for Food, is due out in September. Now, he's writing a new book entitled Eating Aliens, pitching a related TV show, and he hasn't yet met a species he cannot stomach, given enough garlic and butter.

Photo of Jackson Landers

Jackson Landers is on a quest to clean up invasive species one forkful at a time.

Anyone who's ever typed the words "Asian carp" into a YouTube search (go ahead, we'll wait) knows how to catch them. Drive a motorboat down the areas of the Mississippi where they threaten to destroy local ecosystems, and the fish will jump by the hundreds — over, around, and into the boat and whoever happens to be standing in their flight path.

Through ballast water or careless aquaculture, invasive species of various stripes threaten local species from Maine to California. Landers believes that's a problem we can eat our way out of. After all, look what we did to cod. By catching, cooking, and eating the right species, we can strike a blow for the environment from the safety of a dinner plate. He's not alone in this belief.

The Silverfin Gambit

Philippe Parola is a Baton Rouge-based chef and food consultant. In 2009, he and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife kicked off a campaign to rebrand Asian carp and market them as desirable seafood. This is not Parola's first attempt at culinary genocide. In the 1980s, at the request of a local trapper who was unable to find a market for alligator skins in the clothing markets of Europe, he was at the forefront of attempts to popularize alligator meat, which met with some success. His campaign against the nutria, a large rodent released in Louisiana after a hurricane knocked down the fence that contained them, was less successful. These days, Chef Philippe has ambitious plans for the fish he'd prefer you call "silverfin."

The first meeting between chef and carp came unexpectedly. "For 25 years," says the avid boater, "I took off from the restaurant to go fishing religiously, maybe two or three days a week. It's a big thing for me." A few years ago, he was called in as a consultant for a television show, to catch and cook alligator gar, a prehistoric throwback fish native to Louisiana's Atchafalaya River. While he was out on the river with a professional guide he'd hired to ensure success, a pair of carp landed at Parola's feet. It was a big fish he'd never seen locally, so the chef had a few questions. Actually, just one question.

"Why doesn't anybody want to eat this fish?" he says. "I went home and found the problem. There are too many bones in that fish." On this point, everyone but the carp agrees. The carp's Y-shaped floating bones, which make it a powerful swimmer capable of leaping into the air, also make it more challenging to clean. Duane Chapman, a fisherman and U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist, in a video on the subject, says it takes a novice about 20 minutes to clean a carp. The result, according to those who've eaten the fish, and those in other nations for whom it's a common meal — carp have been cultivated for food in China for thousands of years — is well worth it. Parola compares the sweet taste to a cross between scallops and crabmeat.

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Wine (And Wise) Up On Sustainable Seafood

If invasive species aren't yet on your menu, you can still eat responsibly thanks to the Blue Ocean Institute's FishPhone app for iPhones. This app lets you know if the fish you're considering is a threatened species the next time you go to a restaurant, and if it is, offers sustainable choices instead. You can see Blue Ocean's list of species at www.blueocean.org, or download and print a wallet-sized card to let you know whether you're doing the right thing by devouring that Orange Roughy or Chilean Sea Bass (you aren't). Maybe order the mahi-mahi or albacore instead?

This app also offers suggestions for wine pairings courtesy of Brancott wineries, a founding member of Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, and recipes to help your ocean-friendly choices.

No iPhone? No problem. Just text the word BLUE to 30644 with the message FISH and the name of the fish you're considering, and get the Institute's assessment and better alternatives. You can also text the word BLUE to 30644 to opt-in to receive ocean-alerts, info on new seafood rankings, and cooking tips on "good" fish to eat.

 

 

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