Friday, September 23, 2011


          They come in droves. They invade your garden, your lakes, your rivers and your home. And just when you think you’ve defeated them, they come back with a vengeance. And you don’t even know that they are there…This could be the teaser for a horror film, but it’s not. It’s a description of invasive species. And before you go screaming in horror about they impending doom to come, it’s too late. They are already in your own yard, hanging out the entire time. Kudzu? Asian carp? King crab? And even the North American beaver. These are all examples of invasive species.
So what are invasive species? Basically they are any non-native flora or fauna that negatively impact any given ecosystem economically, ecologically or environmentally. The European Union has given two conditions to defining an invasive alien species: Plants and animals that are outside their natural distribution area, and also threaten biological diversity in a given area.
But what does that mean for us? Well if any of you are recreational fisherpersons, you probably are already aware of the invasive species problem. Asian carp,[1] introduced into the US as an “environmentally friendly” answer to algal bloom in fisheries and local waters, their rapid growth (they easily weigh up to 100 pounds) and fertility (Bighead carp produce 200,000 to 1 million eggs in a lifetime. This is compared to 300,000 for common carp and 300-5,000 eggs for silver carp.) And did I mention they jump?[2] Silver carp jump up eight to ten feet when disturbed, often injuring boaters and recreational fishermen (Imagine being hit with a 100 pound fish at 100 mph. Hospital trip).
Jumping aside, the real problem with Asian carp has to do with its ability to displace native fish species quickly. Already in the Mississippi River and rapidly moving up its tributaries, Asian carp threatens to out-complete and overtake aquatic life systems in the Great Lakes region.[3][4] Because bighead and silverhead carp eat such mass quantities of plankton and algal forms (up to 5 to 20% of their body mass), they starve out smaller and native species competing for the same resources. Because Bighead and Silver carp eat plankton and other algal forms, they are not easy to catch through ordinary means (angling) and because of their low commercial and sport value, they remain overrepresented within a given fish population. In an evil chain reaction, the entire Great Lake system is threatened:  Whitefish (no gefilte fish for Rosh Hannah), bass and muskies die out because the food they depend upon, small crustaceans, plant forms and lakebed dwellers, have all been devoured by Asian carp. The insects, birds and other animals that depend upon the lake plants, insects and aquatic life for food also die out. In short: An Asian Carpocalypse.
Realizing the potential (and actual) damage that Asian carp and other invasive species do to local environments and economies, the US Environmental Protection Agency, US Fish and Wildlife Service (a part of the US Interior Department) along with several state agencies (usually those involved in natural resources) usually work in concert to either eradicate or further prevent the migration of invasive species. But this is a rather difficult task because the medicine often kills the patient. For plants, many of the herbicides (including the notorious glycosphate, found in Monsanto’s Round-up) also kill the native plant and flower species that agencies are trying to protect. The same goes for insecticides, fungicides and other pesticides. Some areas have used biological controls, such as goats, sheep or cows to graze away invasive plant species, but they too are problematic (mainly in terms of expense, animal husbandry and over-grazing). Some involve increased hunting licenses for the invasive animals. And in some cases, a total kill, either through fire or chemicals, is involved to refresh the ecosystem.
There is one solution that is slowly catching on, but needs help of the most invasive species of all - humans. No thanks to a poor reputation, many will not consider eating the fish. Some associate Asian carp with its bottom-feeding cousin, the common carp. Others hear the word “invasive species,” and feel queasy. As for looks – well, it ain’t winning any beauty contests.
But here’s the thing: Asian carp is completely edible and pretty tasty. Asian carp has been eaten in China for centuries as a luxury dish.[5] And the taste is really not offensive – a cross between tilapia[6] and mahi mahi. But in most cases, the problem has been one of marketing and exposure. Remember the Patagonian toothfish? Bet you don’t, because it’s now called Chilean sea bass (which you should NOT eat because it is completely over-fished and filled with heavy metals) thanks to a giant marketing campaign.
Can the same be done for Asian carp? The Illinois Department of Natural Resources thinks it can. In a move to kill 2 fish with one stone, the agency wants to use Asian carp for use in anti-hunger campaigns whilst ridding the rivers of the not-so phantom menace. For the 1.8 million on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (otherwise known as food stamps), this would be a cheap, nutritious and delicious form of protein. And the best part: it’s all SUSTAINABLE!!!
But it will take a lot of work to get this plan to work. Chefs need to promote the fish and serve it on their menus. Cookbooks will have to tell people how to prepare it (it will make great fish and chips!). Fish distributors have to accept the fish for sale. And most importantly, people will have start eating it. Lots of it.
We can’t eat all the invasive species in the world, but this is one novel solution to thorny social and environmental problems. In a world where we are running out of solutions for our conservation problems, creativity is needed. And it’s even better if you can eat it.

Sautéed Fish with Black Bean Ginger Sauce

This sauce goes well with any fish, but a firm, white-fleshed fish works best (such as cod or tilapia). And once you find Asian carp at your local grocery store, it will go great with it as well. The sauce can be made one day ahead (just store it in the fridge, covered and bring to room temperature before using.) And when cooking the fish, try to use a cast iron pan – it heats better and creates a better crust for the fish.
1/4 c. soy sauce
1/4 c. fermented/preserved Chinese black beans (see note)
1/4 c. rice vinegar
3 tbs. water
2 tbs. neutral vegetable oil (NOT olive oil)
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 in. knob of ginger, peeled and coarsely cut
3 green onions
1 tbs. toasted sesame oil
4 6oz. white fish filets (any sustainable fish will do)
rice flour for dredging (cornstarch will work as well)
2 tbs. of neutral vegetable oil
fresh cilantro sprigs for garnish

1.     Take soy sauce, black beans, rice vinegar, water, 2 tbs. of vegetable oil, ginger, green onions, garlic, sesame oil and process in a blender or food processor until finely chopped (It should have the consistency of a thin, slightly chunky sauce. If too thick, add water until desired consistency.)
2.     For the fish, heat remaining 2 tbs. of vegetable oil in a cast iron skillet (or a non-stick skillet) over medium high heat until hot, but not smoking.
3.     Season filets with salt and pepper on both sides. Dredge with rice flour (or cornstarch) until lightly coated.
4.     When oil is hot, add fish. Cook for 2 minutes, and then flip over gently. Cook until filets are done (depending upon thickness – about 7 minutes per inch).
5.     Take fish off of pan and place on serving platter. Pour sauce evenly across fish. Garnish with fresh cilantro sprigs. Serve with rice.

[1] Asian carp refer to not one single species of carp but a group of carp; namely, grass (Ctenopharyngodon idella), black (Mylopharyngodon piceus), silver (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix) and bighead (Hypophthalmichthys nobilis) carp. They have been grouped together because of their relatively late introduction into North America (versus the common carp, which has been in North American waters for centuries.).
[2] The jumping bit really is not a threat to humans. Although recreational boaters and fisherpersons have reported injuries such as black eyes, broken bones and concussions from flying fish. Honestly, this is the least of problems when it comes to Asian carp.
[3] The US Environmental Protection Agency has deemed it such a threat that they built an electronic fence at the juncture of the Mississippi/Illinois Rivers and Great Lake water basins to prevent upward migration.
[4] In some areas, Asian carp have occupied 95% of the aquatic biomass in a given water basin.
[5] Yeah, yeah. I know, the Chinese consider pigs’ brains and chicken feet delicacies, but they haven’t caught on here. But look, considering the growing middle-class in China, we should grateful that they do eat plenty of pigs’ feet and the like. If they start getting picky, like the US, the environment, not to mention food prices, are screwed.
[6] Ironically enough, tilapia, one of the US’s most consumed fish, is also considered an invasive species in Florida and across other parts of the US. But several US states, including Arizona and Arkansas use tilapia for water purification purposes (they eat a lot of plants and detritus). In Africa, they are also used for mosquito control (tilapia eat mosquito larvae).
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