In the summer of 2010, Governor Quinn signed an agreement to ship up to 30-million pounds of Asian carp a year to China. He said at the time, “If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em!” Now, almost four years later, we wondered, are people warming up to this invasive species? WGN’s Nancy Loo traveled to an Asian carp processing plant near the Mississippi river that now ships Illinois caught Asian carp, worldwide.
“Our annual purchasing of all species is around 30 million pounds a year,” says the President of Schafer Fisheries, Mike Schafer, “and over 50% of that is Asian carp.” That makes Schafer Fisheries of Thomson, Illinois, one of the nation’s leaders in processing Asian carp. The family owned business, since 1955, gets most of it from local fishermen on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. But, while China considers Asian carp a food staple, many Americans find them hard to swallow. “I think the reason people should look at eating Asian carp; first of all, its wild caught. It has no antibiotics in it. It’s natural. And it’s a good source of protein to feed our kids.” Asian carp brought to Schafer’s processing plant are cleaned, flash frozen, and shipped to markets around the world. The fish processed on the day we were there was headed to the Dominican Republic. Schafer says demand is high on both coasts and overseas in much of Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and even Cuba. But little is consumed in our area. “It’s very, very good, and it’s very healthy. The nutritional values are much higher than any other meat. The protein is really, really good. Plus, you have the Omega 3’s.”
Schafer commends the Governor for his “Can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em” mindset, but, he says marketing Asian carp has been an uphill battle. Still, they never stop experimenting, making everything from fertilizer to hot dogs and carp jerky. The Schafer retail store also offers ground carp for use in tacos, spaghetti, or chili. At Schafer’s request, Supreme Lobster and Seafood Company, based in Villa Park, ordered hundreds of pounds of Asian carp a few years ago, and delivered it to Chicago’s top chefs. Supreme’s President, Dominic Stramaglia, remembers the taste test at the Palmer House. “I’ll tell you it was great, I mean I enjoyed it. Too bad we just can’t apply it from the economic side.” Carl Galvan is a chef turned fishmonger at Supreme. “It’s absolutely not cost effective right now.” Galvan asked one of their fileting experts to demonstrate the stark difference between fileting a salmon and an Asian carp. “Now the only bones left in that are along that center line.” Galvan says the Asian carp is far more challenging because of its bone structure. “The bones that normally come out of here and go like this, come out of here and they go like this.” Stramaglia agrees. “The bone structure and the thickness of the bone is so tough. It’s just amazing that even the deboning machines get clogged up.”
Galvan says when you’re dealing with an eight pound fish, you’re getting a 93% loss on the fish. “The consumer doesn’t see the fish itself, they see the filet. And when you see a filet that’s this big, compared to even a monk fish, which is a really ugly fish, but you can get a filet that’s this big, it just looks better on a plate.” It wasn’t too long ago that people found the idea of eating raw fish disgusting. Now, sushi is a dining favorite. Both Stramaglia and Schafer have eaten raw Asian carp, and say while it was tasty, American acceptance will be a cultural learning curve. “I think it’s possible. Never say never.” “Try it you’ll like it.” Nancy Loo, WGN News.
A state expert says Illinois fishermen have put a dent in the Asian carp populations in some areas. And if the markets can be found, there’s plenty of Asian carp to feed the world’s hungry. There’s also been a lot of talk about a name change, something like Silver Fin. But consensus and approval could take years. Please share this story, and for much more information, click these links.
Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalist Steve Scheuer contributed to this report.