DETROIT – Care for a plate of slimehead? How about some orange roughy?
It’s the same fish, but one sounds much more palatable than the other. The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service gave the slimehead a rebranding in the late 1970s in an effort to make the underused fish more marketable.
Now, Illinois officials and their partners want to give the invasive Asian carp threatening the Great Lakes a similar makeover. The goal: To grow the fish’s image as a healthy, delicious, organic, sustainable food source — which will, in turn, get more fishermen removing more tons of the fish from Illinois rivers just outside of Lake Michigan.
Markets such as pet food, bait and fertilizer have expanded the use of invasive Asian carp in recent years. But “it’s been hard to get the human consumption part of this because of the four-letter word: carp,” said Kevin Irons, assistant chief of fisheries for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
A full-on media blitz is coming later this year to change that. The proposed new name for the fish is being kept tightly under wraps for a big rollout in June, prior to the Boston Seafood Show in mid-July. But other aspects of the “The Perfect Catch” campaign will point out that the invasive Asian carp species — silver, bighead, grass and black carp — are flaky, tasty, organic, sustainable, low in mercury and rich in protein and omega-3 fatty acids.
“To us in America, we think of carp as a bottom-feeding, muddy-tasting fish, which it is sometimes,” said Dirk Fucik, owner of Dirk’s Fish and Gourmet Shop in Chicago, who has had success with occasional serving of Asian carp to customers and is participating in the rebranding effort.
“But Asian carp is a plankton-feeder. It’s a different type of flesh — much cleaner, sweeter-tasting meat.”
Fucik called the upcoming national marketing campaign “the biggest push that we’ve seen so far with these fish.”
Asian carp were introduced in the southern U.S. in the 1960s and ’70s to control algae blooms in aquaculture facilities, farm ponds and sewage lagoons. Floods and human mismanagement helped the carp escape into the Mississippi River system, where their spread exploded.
A 2019 study looking at 20 years of fish population data on the upper Mississippi River confirmed bighead, silver, grass and black carp out-compete sport fish, causing population declines for prized species such as yellow perch, bluegill, and black and white crappie.
Should Asian carp make it into the Great Lakes, many scientists believe they would cause a huge disruption to the aquatic food chain and damage, perhaps irreparably, a $7 billion annual Great Lakes fishery.
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Plans are in the works for a $778 million Asian carp barrier at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam on the Des Plaines River about 27 miles southwest of Chicago in Joliet, Illinois. The barrier will include electricity, unappealing sounds for fish and gates of bubbles as deterrents.
But old-fashioned fishing of pools of carp in the river systems between the Mississippi and Lake Michigan is also proving effective in holding back the potential Great Lakes invaders.
Shawn Price, a commercial fisherman based in Fulton, Illinois, has fished the rivers for Asian carp on contract with the Illinois DNR since 2010. Then, they caught boatloads of carp, almost all 20 to 50 pounds, he said, with some up to 70 pounds or more. Now, the fish are typically 3 to 12 pounds, or even smaller, he said.
“We almost never catch a fish over 30 pounds anymore,” he said. “That mass that was there when we started, when they said they have to do something to save the lake, we have drastically cut it to shreds.”
Back when the program started, bighead carp made up about three-quarters of the catch. Now, they are less than 10%. The difference? Fishermen catch the bighead carp more easily, so they’ve caught them in far greater numbers over the years. “The bigheads don’t jump, the silvers do,” Price said.
It’s silver carp that provide the iconic images of fish jumping out of the water en masse, potentially endangering boaters. Fishermen can have silver carp trapped in six rows of netting “and they will jump over all six of them,” he said.
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‘A huge opportunity for this market to expand’
State-contracted fishermen like Price drop their loads off at the dock, with state officials setting up markets for the carp.
“A lot of the fish are used for organic fertilizer, pet treats,” he said. “They sell a fair amount for … lobster bait, crawfish bait.”
Roy Sorce’s family ran a food service distributorship in Illinois for 49 years. Last year, he converted the business to Sorce Freshwater, seeing a future in Asian carp.
“We take the fish from the fishermen and we find markets to sell them,” he said — bait and fertilizer companies, as well as pet food and for human consumption.
What started as 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of fish a week is now up to 80,000 pounds, with plenty of room to grow, he said. He hopes to add on-site processing of the fish in coming months.
“There’s a huge opportunity for this market to expand,” Sorce said. “We’ve already made inroads … it all has to do with education and marketing. Because of COVID, everyone is so tied up with other issues and priorities. They don’t want to deal with something new, or try something new, yet.”
In Kentucky, Asian carp have moved from the Mississippi and Ohio rivers into tributaries and in two of the state’s biggest reservoirs, Kentucky and Barkley lakes. Peoria, Illinois-based Colgan Carp Solutions has worked with fishermen there to take Asian carp for use as lobster bait in New England.
“The fishermen liked it — they said it fishes well. It’s an oily fish,” founder Brian Colgan said.
COVID-19’s impacts on tourism and restaurants have hit the lobster market hard as well, so demand dried up over 2020, he said.
“The good news is the fishermen started calling again in September and October,” he said.
In Canada, Montreal-based Wilder Harrier last year introduced an Asian carp-based dog food.
“We want to tackle the unsustainability of our food system at large … the heavy use of animal protein in a growing human population of 10 billion people that we just cannot sustain,” company co-founder and CEO Phillippe Poirer said. “We decided to start with our pets.”
Among the company’s products are pet treats made from protein from crickets and a species of fly. Learning of the Asian carp problem just outside the Great Lakes, it seemed a fit, Poirer said.
“Trying to reduce the environmental impact of our food system includes protein sources from species that are damaging our ecosystem, such as invasive species,” he said. “Asian carp has a lot of small bones and really is not ideal as a fillet fish for human consumption. But once ground up, it’s perfect for cats and dogs. It has a great nutritional profile, and it’s very appetizing for them.”
Ah, them bones. Asian carp have many tiny pin bones throughout their fillets. They’re actually so small as to be edible, but they are a hurdle for an American market, Fucik said.
“American people do not like bones,” he said. “Chinese people will eat a fish right off its bones, but in America, people want a 4-ounce salmon fillet, skinless, boneless, that grows on a tree.”
Some higher-order filleting and meat-grinding, however, can overcome the pin bone issue, Fucik said.
The upcoming Asian carp — or whatever the fish will soon be called — marketing push will seek to connect with grocery stores, restaurants, and institutional places such as universities and food pantries. “Anybody who needs to eat proteins,” Irons said. The message: “If you try it, it’s going to be delicious.”
And it’s all for a vital environmental cause. Sorce noted that the Brandon Road Lock and Dam Asian carp barrier proposed for Peoria is still about seven years or more away.
“We are a last line of defense,” he said. “If we can harvest these fish out of the Peoria pool, we can minimize the pressure going north.”
Follow reporter Keith Matheny: @keithmatheny
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Asian carp rebranding: Fish will get new name to appeal to eaters