Would Asian carp by another name taste more delicious?
Kentucky State University researchers think so. The fish with a bad reputation has a new nickname - Kentucky tuna - and, they hope, a spot on your dinner plate.
“We’re trying to break that mindset, because a lot of people are prejudiced against the name ‘carp,’” said Sid Dasgupta, associate professor and principal investigator in the Division of Aquaculture and Environmental Sciences at KSU.
“This fish is not bad at all - it’s excellent.”
Asian carp eat plankton and mussels, Dasgupta says, and they aren’t bottom-feeders, as many believe because of the “grass” carp common around Frankfort used to keep ponds clean.
In Louisiana, the fish is sold as “silverfin” in restaurants and grocery stores, after fish and wildlife officials launched a campaign this year to rename Asian carp for marketing and packaging purposes.
The pearly white flesh - complicated by a series of bones - is described as tasting like a cross between scallops and crabmeat by New Orleans chefs working on possible recipes.
“The whole point is to allow commercial fishermen to make enough money catching and selling carp so it becomes a viable industry,” Dasgupta said.
Fishermen consider Asian carp a nuisance, he said, throwing back the fish that get caught in their nets by mistake.
“I’m an economist - I’m not a biologist - so I like to deal with issues where people can make money.”
Asian carp aren’t native to the U.S., and there are three types that cause fishermen the most concern: the bighead, the silver carp and the black carp.
The bighead weighs up to 100 pounds, and the black carp can grow even bigger - 150 pounds, and 7 feet long.
The fish can multiply quickly and threaten the food that bass, crappie, paddlefish and other species depend on. They jump in the air when disturbed, endangering boaters with broken noses, jaws and ribs.
Efforts to keep them out of the Great Lakes - where they could wipe out the fisheries - include spending millions of dollars on electrical barriers. Chemical poisons have been tried, but they wipe out other fish.
“I feel it’s an awful shame if a government agency goes in and poisons the water or bombs the water, kills the carp and lets it all go to waste,” Dasgupta said.
“We can still remove the carp, but let the American industry take its own course and let some people make money off it. That’s just how this country works.”
Dasgupta and co-investigator Rick Onders are in search of grant funding to study how to make Asian carp part of the American diet.
Asian carp could be sold smoked, fried, prepackaged with spices, or as military meals, Dasgupta said. The fish could also be made into pet food or treats.
A grant would allow KSU researchers to advise small-scale fish processing plants in Western Kentucky, near the borders of several other states dealing with influxes of the pesky fish. It would pay for supplies, surveys, marketing analyses and collaboration with fishermen, restaurants, grocery stores and fish markets.
The products could be test-marketed in Western Kentucky or Louisville, Dasgupta said. If the effort succeeds, he’d like to see it go nationwide.
Until they get grant funding, Dasgupta says all they can do it “play around a little here and there.” Onders agreed.
“Exchanging ideas and brainstorming is what we spend the most time doing,” he said.
In 2007, the men worked with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife to get whole bighead and silver carp from rivers with Kentucky borders.
They experimented with the catch, smoking filets, canning the fish to soften the bones, and grinding it into fish cakes, croquets and salad.
They plan to host a 100-person blind taste test within the next few weeks, serving up batter-fried Asian carp next to catfish. They plan to publish the results in an academic journal.
“Rick is the biologist,” Dasgupta said, “but he’s also a good cook.”
The next step is figuring out how to cut the fish, but leave the bones behind. They’d like to develop an easy way to make boneless strips or filets - Americans don’t like bones in their fish, Onders says.
There are no solid numbers on how many Asian carp are living in Kentucky waters. They are more common in Western Kentucky and states to the north, but Onders says the fish are expanding south.
“Even if we aren’t seeing huge numbers of them now, we will in the future,” he said.
In the Illinois River, the invasive fish erupt around motorboats like popcorn in a hot pan. The fish are swimming in growing numbers deeper into Tennessee through locks and dams on the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers.
A commercial catfish fisherman in Tennessee has hauled in as much as 5,000 pounds of silver carp in a day from the northern portion of Kentucky Lake.
Silver carp were brought to the U.S. from China, mainly to clean up the algae and detritus in catfish ponds and sewage lagoons. But massive flooding on the Mississippi River since the early 1990s sent water across ponds, allowing the carp to escape into the major waterways.
Asian carp is a “green fish,” Dasgupta said, environmentally friendly because it eats so low on the food chain. It’s high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, he said, and is inexpensive.
Asian carp are low in mercury because they don’t eat other fish, Onders said. They also grow so quickly, there’s little time to accumulate it.
“It would be really nice if the American people can make use of this resource to feed the poor or even the rich,” he said. “It’s just a tremendous food resource out there.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.