As a kid, one of my favorite dinners was when mom made baked tilapia on Friday night. II’ll never forget the warm, buttery smell through the kitchen when us kids were called in to wash up. I’m sure you remember those days, right?
Of course not! Back then, there was no tilapia or panga or basa, or whatever else restaurants are now passing off as edible fish, despite social media and news campaigns trying to convince us of how vile they truly are.
Markets persist for these farm-raised excuses, despite the greatest supply of wild fish ever known to the U.S. living right under our noses. The supply I’m referring to, of course, are the Asian carp species inhabiting the Mississippi River basin and connecting waterways.
Recently, we all heard of the explosion of carp in Kentucky and Barkley lakes, as many tour pros reported volumes of fish filling their depthfinders top to bottom across much of the area. Even more regularly, we read of the tens of millions of dollars being spent trying to prevent Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes basins. At this point, are we simply doomed?
We may be, unless we change our thinking.
Readers here need no further introduction to Asian carp. However, it should be noted that steps are in place to begin reducing, or at least controlling, their numbers. A number of commercial fishermen now target the invasive species, and a few processing plants have been built to specifically handle the growing harvest. Investors are looking to the market as a way to increase revenue; one prominent venture capitalist even dipped his toe into the carp pool recently. And a few grassroots events are being held each year – rodeos, derbies and the like – that allow recreational anglers to take part. Even state agencies are beginning netting procedures on waters where such is feasible.
But in the end, the effort directed at Asian carp is far below that necessary to make much of a difference.
One problem is likely the fish itself; Asian carp are pretty boney, making processing a bit more difficult than, say, catfish. And their name doesn’t help any; the average American angler isn’t a real big fan of carp, whether catching or eating them.
But it’s not the fish’s fault. Asian carp are, in fact, quite delicious, with a light, flaky meat that holds its own against nearly any other freshwater swimmer. And, until a viable commercial fishery is firmly established, no other method of reduction could possibly result in acceptable numbers of carp within our fisheries.
So what needs to be done to ensure more Asian carp are on the menu? Our primary need will be support from the government.
It may be interesting to note that many of our commercial fisheries currently receive government subsidies, or have in the past. This can come in terms of actual price fixing, but more often is in the form of government programs designed to reduce costs to the fishermen, or increase demand for the fish.
In the past, the U.S. government has helped commercial fishermen by opening new markets, introducing new technology and equipment, purchasing boats, starting ad campaigns and educating the public. In fact, it was the government that originally investigated and determined a commercial fishery was viable in Alaska for king crab.
In any case, the key component to the reduction of Asian carp through commercial methods will likely be government programs that increase demand, as well as value, for the fish itself, making it possible to support an industry far larger than it currently does. Right now, Kentucky – likely the most forward-thinking of all the states being impacted by Asian carp – is encouraging the public to voice this need to federal lawmakers, allowing a block grant to be directed toward controlling carp over the next five years.
Other ideas include increasing boat registration fees in order to drive more money toward carp reduction programs and using state funds to subsidize and drive the market.
But the real key lies in changing the minds of the public.
Let me give you an example: not long ago, the lionfish was broadcast as a death sentence for ocean reef fisheries, capable of breeding like rabbits, but with little or no use as table fare.
Yet today, a quick search of restaurants serving lionfish includes some of the most acclaimed, premier dining establishments in Florida and across the Caribbean, where patrons often pay in excess of $30 a plate for a taste of something new.
Commercial spear divers often shoot more lionfish than any other species, as lionfish value competes with everything on the reef. While lionfish are still a huge threat to the reef fisheries across much of the world, a real crusade to reduce their numbers is beginning to take place.
But the movement didn’t happen overnight. Fishing shows, cooking shows and social media campaigns were directed at the palatability of lionfish. Groups worked with supermarket chains to offer free sampling in the store. Tutorials on how to clean and cook lionfish were developed, fishing derbies were held with substantial prizes, and the recreational angler base was allowed to sell their catch. Everything possible was done to promote the need for fishing these invasives, and to create a demand within the public for them as table fare.
While lionfish still pose a tremendous threat to the waters in and around Florida, they are being aggressively targeted, better than the more easily fished Asian carp.
As more groups observe such programs and get in on the action, they’ll be pushing Asian carp our way, so let’s be the first ones in line at the buffet. It’s time to stop buying wannabes, and start eating fish.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)