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Going Green: Menu Invaders

Can consumers turn on to invasive species like Asian carp? One chef is betting on it

By James Wright
February 05, 2012

Beware, Lake Michigan. Same to you, Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, for the Asian carp could well be on its way. Some reports say it’s already there. The invasive species, introduced to Midwest U.S. waterways as early as the 1970s, continues to adapt to new environs like brackish waters. Scientists seeking to stem its encroachment into areas where it could devastate native species are running out of answers. 

Gates, dams or electric barriers? The fish, also known as the silver carp, can jump over them, or they were built too late. The Army Corps of Engineers has fought mostly a losing battle thus far, despite millions of dollars spent on projects to keep the fish, which can grow up to 100 pounds each, out of sensitive places like the Chicago Area Waterway System. If the fish does reach the Great Lakes or the Gulf of Mexico and thrives, many fear the silver carp will outcompete everything else for food. The herbivores’ main diet is plankton and algae, the foundation of the aquatic food web. 

It all begs one obvious question: Why don’t we just eat them and control the population that way? 

That’s what Chef Philippe Parola, a Le Cordon Bleu de France commander who’s served two former U.S. presidents, has in mind. But Parola admits it’s been a tough sell. Asian carp, which he calls Silverfin (www.silverfincraze.com), is chock full of bones, a fact that doesn’t appeal to many buyers. 

“The bones, the bones. The only issue is the bones, my friend,” says Parola, who repeatedly describes the silver carp’s flavor as “incredible” and comparable to cod or crabmeat. When Parola does find someone willing to give the fish a try, he says they usually ask for seconds — especially children, who don’t lie about food. 

Parola is now going all out to find a stable of restaurateurs or retailers to put a fish most call a pest on their menus or in their display cases. To make a viable and consistent source of fish, Parola also needs a tidy sum from investors, who he says should be eager for an opportunity that could not only rid one problem, but also help with others like creating jobs, reducing the trade deficit and providing a new source of clean protein. 

As he figures, if you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em. 

“We’re already too late. Our policymakers have done pretty much nothing to resolve this problem and it’s so deep,” says Parola, who’s based in Baton Rouge, La. “Michigan, Arkansas, Illinois: I’ve been with the fishermen there and it’s unbelievable to see the number of these fish. All the fishermen are complaining that they can’t catch any more catfish.” 

Invasive species are causing trouble all across the country:

•In inland waters like the Great Lakes, zebra mussels are edging out smelt and alewives. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in November closed down Vermont’s Bethel Fish Hatchery to prevent the spread of “rock snot,” a non-native algae that could choke out the cold waters in lakes and streams where endangered wild Atlantic salmon cling to a fragile existence. 

•Asian tiger prawns, which can grow to a foot long and weigh about a pound, can outcompete native Gulf shrimp species for food and carry diseases that brown, white and pink shrimp may struggle to fight off. 

•And along the Atlantic Coast and Caribbean Sea, the spread of lionfish has caught the attention of federal fisheries officials as well as chefs. Thanks to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Eat Sustainable, Eat Lionfish program, interest in the species is growing. But like the Asian carp, lionfish is a challenge to process thanks to venomous spines that can cause pain and illness to humans. 

But with astonishing, science fiction-like reproduction and jumping abilities, no other invasive species has caught the public’s attention quite like the Asian carp. Parola has spent the last two years devising a business plan that would capitalize on the fish’s notorious reputation and the government’s desire to rid U.S. waters of the fish. He’s seeking $8 million in investments to build a processing facility and distribution network close to the Mississippi River basin. He’d use existing seafood processing equipment that would be “tweaked” to the carp’s unique needs. 

Not everyone is on board with Parola’s plan, however. The feisty chef has had to focus his efforts on Southern states because he’s a threat to existing carp-mitigation projects. His message is “not very welcome in northern states,” he says. 

“If I do succeed and put this fish on the market and we somehow manage the population of the fish, everyone involved in getting grants, they’ll be cut off,” he says. “It took me two years to understand that, but I’m the only one with a plan!” 

That plan will require seafood buyers (and ultimately consumers) to accept a precooked product. That’s right — because of the intricate bone structure of the silver carp, Parola discovered that the only way to keep the meat intact through processing was to cook the fish in order for the bones to be removed easily. Otherwise, it looks like ground beef. The precooked product is somewhat similar to surimi, Parola says, but in terms of flavor it’s more like cobia or grouper. It could even be microwaveable. 

“And it’s better tasting than catfish and tilapia,” he says. “No aftertaste. It’s not a bottom feeder. It’s very clean. It’s the best-kept secret of all time and we can’t wait any longer.”  

Parola’s inspiration for the business called Silverfin Promotion came during a fishing trip with conservationist and cable TV star Jeff Corwin, when one of the fish jumped onto the boat, stirred by the sound of the motor. 

“I said, ‘There’s no such thing as a bad fish. Every fish is eaten somewhere around the world,’” says Parola. “And when I saw that meat, white and beautiful, I thought there’s no way this could taste bad.” 

Parola hopes his venture can grow beyond mere curiosity status to full-on market interest. Thankfully, some chefs are embracing the use of invasive species. Bun Lai, chef at Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, Conn., proudly boasts what he calls the nation’s only invasive species menu, using items like European green crabs and flat oysters, shore crabs, moon snails, lionfish and more. Lai refers to invasive species as a “vast untapped resource for eating.” 

Lai also says Parola is a “hero” of his, and a “true pioneer” for his work on invasive species. 

“Asian carp is easily one of the tastiest freshwater fish, period,” says Lai. “I have been working with the fish off and on but, ironically, sourcing it has been our biggest hurdle. There’s no reason this fish couldn’t one day be an item on sushi menus throughout the world. Sushi is a cuisine that is, more than any other cuisine, on the lookout for exotic ingredients and invasive species fit that description.” 

Parola, who is collaborating with Lai on an Asian carp dish for his extensive menu, reiterates that the need to dine on the species, as opposed to spending countless millions on barriers, is urgent. He says he can provide the fish to interested buyers now. 

“It is such a problem because it is literally everywhere and displacing native fish. The alternative, eating the fish, is the best thing to do,” says Parola. “We’re wasting this resource. Many invasive species are not edible, but this one is. In Louisiana alone, I can process 12 million pounds a year without breaking a sweat.” 
 

Email Senior Editor James Wright at jwright@divcom.com 

February 2012 - SeaFood Business

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