Rebranding the Asian Carp as Dinner
The Illinois River is now home to these fearsome flying fish (Photo: Illinois National History)
Asian Carp are infamous for their invasion of the Mississippi River and jumping out of the water. But some scientists, fishermen, social service agencies, and even marketers see a lot of promise in this aggressive fish. As Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah reports, there’s a move to change the fish’s image, in order to feed hungry people and slow an invasion.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. The Asian Carp has invaded the Mississippi River system. As the fish encroaches on the Great Lakes, scientists, entrepreneurs, and community organizers are coordinating efforts to pull this fish out of the rivers and onto our plates.
In the second part of our series, Go Fish: Striving for Sustainability, Ike Sriskandarajah investigates what needs to happen to take a bite out of the invasive Asian carp.
SRISKANDARAJAH: On a warm afternoon, I met Kevin Irons in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn in Bolingbrook, Illinois - about 30 miles from Chicago. Irons runs the aquatic nuisance species program for the state of Illinois, and just came out of meetings with biologists and commercial fishermen. He agrees to show me why they met in this small town.
[SOUND OF CAR GPS, DRIVING]
IRONS: Yeah, as we drive out here, we’re going to park at the end of this road.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Irons drives a few miles away from the hotel and turns onto a dusty service road that cuts through two thin bodies of water.
IRONS: And it’s on essentially the shores of the Des Plaines River. And to our right is where the Chicago sanitary and ship canal exists.
[SOUND OF CAR DOOR]
SRISKANDARAJAH: The Chicago Sanitary and Ship canal is manmade, carved into bedrock to save a city from its own sewage one hundred years ago. The river moves waste from the city and is the only shipping link for cargo between the Mississippi and the Great Lakes. The Des Plaines River is natural.
[SOUNDS OF CRICKETS, RIVER]
IRONS: It’s a very slow river. We see aquatic vegetation, shore birds. We see a fishing egret out here. So even though we’re close to Chicago, you feel kinda remote. You can see why people want to spend some time out here. You may also get a sense for why people are so concerned about Asian carp.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Not far from here, the invasive Asian carp are more densely populated than anywhere in the world. And if they made it across this 30 ft wide service road from river into canal, they would be on their way to Lake Michigan.
Two Asian Carp varieties: bighead and silver, are the most proficient water invaders. They exist on nearly every continent. They’re highly adaptive, reproduce quickly and eat a ton of plankton. That is why scientists like Irons are sounding the alarm.
IRONS: It takes a biologist a while to convince other people and we have to consider everything. That’s why the pictures, the movies have been so valuable to us. If I say there’s a lot of fish, what does that mean? But if you see a picture of 100 fish jumping out of the water around a boat, oh, that’s a lot of fish.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Asian carp are infamous for jumping at the hum of a motorboat. YouTube has made them the poster child for invasive species.
[SOUND OF YOUTUBE VIDEO: MAN: “Here we go, the land of the jumpin' carp” SOUND OF FISH SPLASHING WITH MOTOR. “Here we are, hang on. Look at ‘em Fred, look!” FRED: “Dear lord!” WOMAN: “Oh my lord! Look at that.” MAN: BEEP BEEP that knocked my hat off!”]
SRISKANDARAJAH: The kamikaze fish, averaging 35 pounds, can break bones and knock people unconscious.
[SOUND OF YOUTUBE VIDEO: (Laughter) “Oh crap! They hurt!”]
SRISKANDARAJAH: In the mid '70s catfish farmers in the south imported Asian carp to eat the scum off their ponds. But flooding soon washed the fish into the Mississippi. The schools moved north, up the Mississippi system and were first found in the Illinois River 25 years ago. Now there are more here than ever.
Illinois is fighting the carp occupation with electrified barriers, vigilant river patrols and DNA sweeps. The White House has even appointed a Carp Czar. But there’s a secret weapon that has not yet been deployed. A strategy invasive-insiders call “when you can’t beat 'em, eat 'em.”
IRONS: Commercial fishing may be that one tool that can remove enough fish - I mean millions of pounds, consistently.
SRISKANDARAJAH: But so far, that tactic is unused only because Americans have a prejudiced palette against the carp
IRONS: Carp’s a 4-letter word. People think carp and they think of Grandpa’s carp. Even though we know they’re over-fished in the rest of the world, we don’t have a big desire here in the US to eat bighead, silver carp.
SRISKANDARAJAH: The common carp is a bottom feeder - living off mud, bugs and it's notoriously strong-smelling. The Asian carp lives near the top of the water and is a planktivore. And some biologists swear it’s good eating.
IRONS: I’ve eaten it several times. It’s very good - one of the best tasting fish products, maybe, in the world. In fact, Illinios is working with a program we call Target Hunger Now or Feeding Illinois trying to get this fish product into places like food shelters.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Over the past year, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has been working with food banks to channel this river of protein towards urban food deserts and hungry people across the state.
[SOUNDS FROM FOOD SHELTER]
SRISKANDARAJAH: I met with Tracy Smith, the director of Feeding Illinois, outside A Safe Haven , a shelter in Chicago.
[SOUNDS OF SIRENS IN BACKGROUND]
SRISKANDARAJAH: Smith oversees a network of eight food banks that moved 127 million pounds of food last year to soup kitchens, food pantries, and shelters - like the one we’re at. This year, Feeding Illinois is stretched thin.
SMITH: One of the things that strikes me in every part of the state that we go to - they all talk about an increase in demand and decreasing federal and state support. Every single pantry that we’ve walked into has said, "look at my empty shelves." This is a crisis situation.
SRISKANDARAJAH: The food banks are especially short on protein. That’s where the Department of Natural Resources partnership comes in. The program, Target Hunger, enlists deer hunters to supply fresh meat.
SMITH: Yes, we do already…the food banks and food pantries work with the Department of Natural Resources to do a venison program and we get about 100,000 lbs of venison out of that program a year.
SRISKANDARAJAH: But Asian carp is a completely different animal.
SMITH: Yeah… No, the scale would be much larger. 100,000 lbs in the scope of 127 million that are distributed is pretty small. And in addition, because it is not being consumed widely, there’s an education component. Is it something that clients are going to accept? The worst thing is to have food that people don’t want to eat.
SRISKANDARAJAH: So Feeding Illinois, with help from the DNR and the culinary world, gave food-bank clients a taste of carp cuisine. I met three Safe Haven residents who were at the tasting. Susan Harper, Michelle Miles and Willie Rimson were initially biased against the fish. But could taste triumph over reputation?
HARPER: Yeah, the way they prepared it, you know, it was almost like a salmon croquette with a lemon sauce on it, and I thought it was great. I think it’s something that they could serve at A Safe Haven, and it’ll bring a lot of protein and some taste into our menu. I think it’d be a wonderful idea.
SRISKANDARAJAH: And you?
MILES: Yeah, I thought it was good.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Though not everyone took to it.
RIMSON: That carp croquette was not to my liking. It was just a strong fishy taste to it, you know. I actually wouldn’t go and buy. No, not now that I’ve had it. No.
SRISKANDARAJAH: But Harper and Miles said they would look for Asian carp at the grocery store.
HARPER and MILES: Absolutely, absolutely. I would… if I knew how to cook it right, I would serve it.
SRISKANDARAJAH: So how easy is it to cook? I ordered a few pounds from a place that catches and process Asian carp - Schafer’s Fishery in Illinois. They sell it ground up - hamburger-style.
[SOUNDS OF BAG OPENING]
SRISKANDARAJAH: My package arrived in a white Styrofoam box with one-pound vac-u-packed units that looked like bio-medical waste.
[SOUND OF CARP SIZZLING ON FRYING PAN]
SRISKANDARAJAH: But fried up with some seasoning…
SRISKANDARAJAH: Rolled into a taco - it tastes more like meat than fish. It seems that this protein has promise. That’s why Tracy Smith, back at Feeding Illinois, is figuring out the business of getting this product into the pantries.
SMITH: The unique thing about Asian carp is that they’re not using it commercially in the United States right now, and so in order to use it for humanitarian purposes, a whole infrastructure really has to be built up to do it.
SRISKANDARAJAH: That means hiring fleets of fishermen, processors, distributors…
SMITH: You also have to pay people well enough that it's worth it for them to get involved in the process.
SRISKANDARAJAH: And for that to happen, there has to be enough people who want to eat this stuff. But how do you sell something that has a bad reputation? Well that’s what marketers do.
HALDEMAN: What do I do, specifically? High-level creative strategy.
SRISKANDARAJAH: High-level creative strategy?
SRISKANDARAJAH: Brock Haldeman is the President and CEO of Pivot Design, a Chicago firm that builds brands. I wanted to know what a carp campaign might look like. So before we met, I sent him a dossier of facts that I thought would be helpful - like how carp’s a lean protein, high in omega 3, low in mercury. It’s likely the most environmentally friendly meat around. But Haldeman told me selling this fish has little to do with the facts.
HALDEMAN: I mean the stigma is really the name. There’s lots of examples in, sort of, the food world of taking a horrible sounding fish name, give it a new name and actually make them very popular.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Ever heard of Patagonian Toothfish? One LA-based fish importer in the 70s found this little-known, undervalued fish. He renamed it Chilean sea bass and sold it to restaurants around the world. Now it's nearly fished out of existence.
Some carp cheerleaders want to reintroduce it as “Silverfin.” Then marketers like Haldeman would erase Asian carp from memory. But to pull off this level of “brand rollout,” to make Asian carp - I mean Silverfin - the new turkey dinner … it’ll cost you.
HALDEMAN: Uh, a lot. It’s probably, you know, a six figures effort.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Six figures sounds like a lot, but these invaders threaten the commercial and recreational interests of the Great Lakes - a nine figure value.
Millions of dollars can buy influence; evangelists to push your product into the market. I asked Midwestern rapper, Juiceboxxx, if he could put the message to music.
JUICEBOXXX MUX: Throw it to the song!
[MUSIC: “Don’t call it carp. Don’t call it carp.
Don’t call it carp…” RECORD SCRATCH]
HALDEMAN: But, no, you’re not going to use … There’d be no references to carp ever. You basically have to say goodbye to that name and reintroduce this product with its new name.
[MUSIC: JUICEBOXXX: Alright. “Silverfin! Silverfin!
SRISKANDARAJAH: If marketers, fishermen, biologists and a rapper have their way, it might not be too long before there’s a Silverfin invading a grocery store near you. For Living on Earth, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.
[MUSIC: Juiceboxxx “Don’t Call It Carp” self produced for LOE]
CURWOOD: You heard Juiceboxxx’s Don’t Call it Carp. We're looking for catchy songs that could make carp the catch of the day. Email us your jingles to comments@ LOE dot ORG. We'll put our favorites on the air and Schafer fisheries will send you some of their prime cut carp.
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