Clint Carter’s first catch of the day jumps right into his boat before he’s laid an inch of net. Another four or five silver carp make the leap in the time it takes Carter and his partner, Dave Buchanan, to scout out the best fishing grounds on that morning’s stretch of the Illinois River. The motor of their steel-sided skiff startles the silvers enough to send them shooting out of the water in unpredictable parabolas. Once the men near a dense shoal of fish, the commotion reaches a fever pitch, like popcorn in a hot pan. Buchanan strategically twists and turns the boat, as Carter lets hundreds of yards of trammel nets off the stern.
Silver carp are one of four Asian carp species that were introduced to American waterways by federal researchers working in Arkansas in the 1960s and ‘70s. First came the grass carp, who could eat away water weeds as fast as most herbicides could kill them, and without the dangerous side effects. Bighead carp and silver carp — both filter feeders — were recruited to perform a nastier kind of cleanup: skimming off waste from sewage ponds and lagoons. Black carp arrived to help deal with pesky snails in aquaculture ponds.
Asian carp are an example of biocontrol spiraling horribly out of control. In the era of anti-chemical outrage following “Silent Spring,” scientists sprang on Asian carp as a healthy alternative to pesticides and herbicides. They were aware of the potential dangers posed by invasive species but allowed their excitement to get the better of their caution. Trading the fish between research stations while hastily breeding new generations of the super-cleaners, they overlooked the tiny fry darting through tears in their holding screens and spilling out of tanks into drainage pipes. Before long, local fishermen were pulling up the unfamiliar catch. By the ‘90s, Asian carp had made their way up the length of the Mississippi River, wreaking havoc on every native ecosystem they passed through.
Like all successful invasive species, Asian carp easily outcompete their neighbors for food and space. They reproduce at an astonishing rate, with females laying between a million and two million eggs per year. Across the four species, Asian carp enjoy an expansive diet of zooplankton, phytoplankton, plants and small fish, and they feel comfortable in a range of water conditions. In some places, they account for over 90% of the freshwater biomass. Living in western Illinois for almost forty years, Clint Carter has witnessed Asian carp conquer the Midwest.
As a kid in the ‘80s, Carter used to fish for buffalo with his brother and dad near a small cabin they own on the Mississippi. In the early ‘90s, the Asian carp showed up at their doorstep. “The carp kind of took over,” he recalled. “To catch five hundred pounds of buffalo, we’d have to kill three thousand pounds of carp.”
For years, Carter and his family did what many other fishermen did with the new arrivals: They ripped out their gills and tossed the carcasses onto shore. Early rumors about Asian carp had multiplied with the fish and, added to some unfortunate misconceptions, given them a reputation as a “trash fish.” People assumed they were bottom feeders like their cousin, the common carp — introduced by European immigrants in the 1800s — and therefore full of PCBs and other harmful toxins. In reality, bigheads and silvers feed well up the water column, putting on some of the healthiest flesh around, and all four species are high in vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids. Not to mention, the fish are delicious. It took Carter some time to recognize the potential of Asian carp, but the discovery ended up changing the course of his career.
Carter is tall and heavy, wears a goatee, and drives a white Dodge pickup. He’s soft-spoken and lives in a lofty cabin he helped build down the road from where he grew up. The money he makes catching and selling Asian carp supplements his main income as the owner of Carter’s Fish Market in Springfield. His family has been offering fresh cuts of local fish from their shop on the quiet eastern side of town since 1983. About eight years ago, Carter added an item to the menu of the small kitchen serving to-go meals in front of his market: Asian carp. He chopped the fish into strips, battered and breaded them, and served them with pickles, onions, and a honey wheat bread. “We tried to create a demand, so that we could get them out of the water and utilize them,” he explained. Most of his customers had never tasted Asian carp before and were more than hesitant to do so. Once they tried it, the dish took off. “It became really popular,” Carter told me at a picnic table by the takeout window. “We changed a lot of minds.”
With his decades of experience both on the river and behind the counter, Carter now stands at an important nexus in the web of Asian carp-hungry fishermen, chefs, and entrepreneurs that is beginning to stretch across the Midwest. At August’s state fair, he cooks up his signature strips for hundreds of visitors. He has partnered with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to serve fresh-caught Asian carp to students, as well as with the Silverfin group based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to make an Asian carp fish cake, the first-ever value-added food product made from an invasive species.
Carter believes Asian carp is a future staple of the American diet. Forget the kale and the organic veggies, here’s an easy answer to the search for foods both affordable and considerate of our natural resources: a tasty and nutritious fish jumping into our laps, ten to twenty pounds at a time. “We’re trying to figure out ways to feed people,” Carter said. “And we literally have a protein source by the hundreds of millions, if not a billion, pounds of meat throughout the country that needs to come out, that’s also sustainable, healthy, and wild.”
The Chinese people have revered, and happily devoured, Asian carp for thousands of years. According to Chinese mythology, carp are able to transform into dragons by jumping up waterfalls. Carter likes to remind people that Asian carp is the “most farmed fish on the planet”; he calls it the “ground beef” of China.
If Shanghai were on the Mississippi, the river would be cleared of Asian carp in no time. Unfortunately, the appetite for the fish isn’t the same in St. Louis or Memphis as it is on the opposite side of the globe. How is it that this mild, white, and flaky fish can be prized in one culture and hated in another? Blame the bones. Unlike salmon, trout, cod, and most of the fish you buy at your neighborhood grocery store, Asian carp sport a set of tiny Y-shaped pin bones down each flank. The Chinese (and nearly everyone else in the world, for that matter) know how to eat around the bones, but Americans have never learned how. “Americans just aren’t used to eating fish with bones in them,” Carter said.
At his market, Carter is able to provide his customers with boneless Asian carp fillets by chopping away 90 percent of the fish’s weight. He jokes about what it might take to convert American diners to Asian carp: “We need to put cheese on it.” But the struggle to satisfy Americans’ tastes is no laughing matter. Carter was forced to discontinue his popular Asian carp strips at the market for a few years because it was becoming so difficult to turn a profit. “It was too much work, too much waste,” he said. “It wasn’t worth the payout.” He could only afford to put Asian carp back on the menu when he found someone willing to buy other cuts of the meat for fishing bait.
Chef Philippe Parola is a friend of Carter’s who has found that he can gain a higher yield from the fish by sending them back the direction they came from. Parola’s company, the Silverfin Group, buys Asian carp from American fishermen and ships them to Vietnam, where they’re steamed, deboned, and turned into Silverfin fish cakes. The fish’s bones are picked out by hand on assembly lines at large factories. If there were facilities in the U.S. that could efficiently process the meat that way, Parola would work with them, but they don’t exist. Shipping the fish across two oceans turns out to be the most cost-effective route to a quality product.
Before he turned his attention to Asian carp, Parola led a culinary crusade against nutria, another invasive species ravaging the lower Mississippi. Originally from South America, the large rodents gorge themselves on vegetation in marshy areas. Partnering with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Parola brought a number of other chefs on board to promote nutria as a high-protein, low-fat meat. Their campaign was hurt by the animal’s public image as an oversized river rat; even the U.S. Department of Agriculture refused to approve nutria for human consumption. Though not as ugly as nutria, Asian carp comes with similar baggage as a well-known nuisance species. One of the first steps Parola took to advertise the fish was to rename it. He came up with the appetizing moniker, Silverfin, and trademarked the word.
For a few years now, students at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign have enjoyed eating Silverfin fish cakes. The university purchases the cakes from the food distributing corporation, Sysco, and cooks them with sauces and in dishes like fish tacos. It was Carter who first approached Kit Smith, a director of procurement at the university, in 2016, about serving Asian carp in dining halls, and he fried up some samples to plead his case. “That really changed my perspective,” Smith remembered tasting the fish. “I’m like, why is this fish considered so bad?” Dining Services can’t afford to purchase the boneless fillets Carter prepared, but the Silverfin cakes are well within their budget, as well as whole Asian carp. This traditional style of serving the fish has also been successful. Curiosity draws some students, who are “more open to different food experiences” than earlier generations, Smith notes, while for many of the international students on campus, a whole, bony Asian carp is a delicious taste of home.
Immigrants have been able to buy Asian carp in specialty stores since the fish arrived in the U.S. For most distributors, the ethnic market continues to provide the highest revenue in Asian carp sales. Because the Asian American population isn’t increasing at anywhere close to the rate of the Asian carp population, however, the demand remains low, as well as the supply. Distributors can fill their orders by offering fishermen as little as ten cents a pound.
When export and import specialist Angie Yu heard about Asian carp overwhelming U.S. waterways, her instinct was to skip over the market stateside and see whether the nearly two billion carp enthusiasts living in China wanted them. She was disappointed to learn that, like Americans, the Chinese have their own pickiness. In China, Asian carp is farm-raised and always served fresh. The very characteristics that that make American carp so great to eat — they’re wild, gamy, and big — make them unmarketable in China. The Chinese are wary of eating frozen meat, even if it’s of a higher quality. They also want to eat a whole fish in one sitting, from the head down to the tail, meaning the giant fifteen-pounders from the Mississippi don’t appeal to them. Moreover, after accounting for shipping costs, the American fish is too expensive. In China, “Carp is carp,” Yu laughed; she has found it very difficult to convince Chinese buyers that the costlier fish she offers is a higher-end product than the carp they’re used to.
Yu stopped shipping to China after one year and has put her plans to promote American carp there on the back burner. In the meantime, she sells to eleven different countries worldwide, mainly in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and has dived into the domestic market. “We can use it here. You know, I don’t understand. In the U.S., we eat so many imported fish. Why not eat our local fish?” she asked. Yu’s company, Two Rivers Fisheries, is one of multiple American and Chinese investors partnering to build an Asian carp industrial park in Kentucky’s Ballard County, with backing from the state. There will be factories devoted to smoked fish and fish meatballs and others that will take care of the leftovers, converting them into fertilizer and bait. Yu is especially excited about a ground fish product that can be shaped into patties and sausages for American eaters. “My mission is to reduce, reuse, redefine Asian carp.”
The Great Lakes are the final frontier on Asian carp’s steady march through the Midwest. Nearly all the federal money and energy spent on Asian carp has been sent to the roughly forty-mile stretch of diverted water known as the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which connects the Mississippi watershed to Lake Michigan. Congress is considering a bill that would fund an $850 million addition to the series of concrete channels and electric barriers that currently work to deter Asian carp from entering the lake. If the fish get there and are able to reproduce, they could tear the Great Lakes’ $7 billion fishery to shreds.
Fifty years ago, the U.S. government let Asian carp into the Mississippi River Basin, and until recently, they have concentrated on keeping their damage limited to that ecosystem. In 2007, the National Asian Carp Management Plan was passed, leading hundreds of millions of dollars to be given toward projects in and around Chicago. Ron Brooks, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s director of fisheries, said the federal funding took another seven years to reach his department: “That didn’t trickle down until 2014, when we started getting a little money.” Over the last several years, subsidies for catching and processing Asian carp have arrived in bits and pieces to various parts of the Mississippi watershed. Some grants in the northern basins are meant to ease pressure on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal by controlling the populations upriver. In states farther south, like Kentucky, the money goes to helping local fisheries rebound from the devastation caused by Asian carp. Carter’s fishing partner, Dave Buchanan, helps run a subsidy program on a sixty-mile stretch of the Illinois River that offers fisherman an extra ten cents a pound for Asian carp. Buchanan believes that with the gates opened on government dollars, they’ll keep flooding in. “This is about the only thing in our country right now that’s completely bipartisan.”
Subsidies have spurred fishermen who felt hopeless after the annihilation brought by Asian carp to return to the water, as well as a cohort of savvy professionals specifically targeting the fish. Doubling the earnings on Asian carp makes it worthwhile for fishermen to keep their catch, throw some ice over it, and drive it to a distributor. The government agencies win too, since they end up paying a fraction of the costs it would take themselves to remove the same numbers of fish. “We’re ahead of the game by using commercial fishermen as a tool,” said Brooks. He reports that six million pounds of Asian carp were harvested from just the Kentucky and Barkley lakes in 2019. With more Asian carp on the market every day, a host of new processing companies have begun to look into the potential of the fish for products ranging from protein powder in pet and cattle feed to cheap nuggets perfect for schools and prisons.
Chef Parola urges processors and distributors to invest more in the fishermen and not to rely on subsidy programs to prop up the market. “If those incentives disappear, then you go back to square one,” he said. The first question Parola asked commercial fishermen when he became interested in Asian carp was: “How much will it take you to go out there and catch those fish?” They told him twenty-five cents a pound, so he promised them thirty. Parola claims the natural beauty and resources of coastal Louisiana are what convinced him to stay in the area, and he saw in the carp crisis an opportunity to give back to the community that had inspired him. “I kind of owed the fishing something back.”
Everyone agrees that eradication of Asian carp from American waters is all but impossible. The fish just need moving water to spawn like crazy, and they’ve found plenty of that along the Mississippi and its tributaries. But the emergence of humans as a natural predator can have a massive impact on the population. Parola draws courage from another French Louisianian chef, Paul Prudhomme, whose single recipe for blackened redfish started a national craze around the relatively unknown species in the ‘80s, ultimately leading the federal government to protect redfish with catch limits. It’s time for someone to make the same breakthrough on Asian carp. “I guarantee you that we can slap those fish around strongly enough that they will not hurt our ecosystem,” Parola said. Asian carp will one day “coexist with all the native fish,” he predicts. “That’s our solution.”
Carter and Buchanan fish from sunrise through the mid-afternoon. At the end of the day, they motor their boat, pregnant with four thousand pounds of fish, back to the dock, where it can be hooked to Carter’s truck. A last dump of ice and a tarp over the top keeps the fish from festering on the two-hour drive up to Schafer Fisheries in Thomson, Illinois. Inside Schafer’s plant, the fish take a final flight through the air, this time out of the bed of the boat, tossed like frisbees by a crew of men. Each species is designated its own crate. The growing pile of silvers reaches towards the top of theirs, blood and scales spattering out at every landing, until a second crate is brought over. In a few side crates, lonely buffalo, perch, and catfish gather in thin layers. These fish used to rule the rivers in Carter’s youth. It will take many more crates up to the brim with Asian carp, but hopefully the native fish will someday return to filling their own.