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Another Effort to Make Flying Fish a Great Dish

Asian carp, both bighead and silver carp, have been on the rise in Louisiana since the 1980s. They have moved into the Mississippi River and our bayous disrupting the local aquatic environment. However, Chef Philippe Parola is finding a way for our fishy nemesis to move into our bellies.

Indigenous to Asia, this invasive species was imported into the southern United States in the 1970s to support aquaculture. They eventually escaped their controlled environment and became watery fugitives – not armed, but dangerous. Carp populations have wreaked havoc on aquatic ecosystems by outcompeting native fish populations for plankton, all-the-while reproducing at a phenomenal rate. As herbivores, they can’t be caught with a rod or reel. Yet, they can weigh in at 30 pounds or more. And when startled by noise – such as a boat motor – silver carp can jump 10 feet or higher into the air, putting boaters at risk.

Asian carp populations stretch from Texas to Florida. And they’ve been found in the Illinois River, which connects the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan. The fish can survive both in freshwater and saltwater, as well as withstand near freezing temperatures. Controlling them requires methods like electroshock or pesticides which can have their own negative ecosystem impacts.

So instead of destroying them en masse, Parola pondered why not have them over for dinner? “Spread the word that this fish is good to eat. Treat it like a red fish or speckled trout and you’re going to see people jumping on board,” Parola said.

The chef is no stranger to making exotic game a choice on the menu. Before Asian carp, Parola found a way to make alligator and even nutria options for dinner. He also founded the “Can’t Beat ‘Em, Eat ‘Em” group that educates the public on carp and other invasive species in the U.S.

But how do you serve Asian carp, a very bony fish?

The world-renowned chef has managed to take the bone-filled carp and turn them into fish cakes. Processing these fish, however, is an expensive and complicated procedure. To lower costs, the fish are shipped to Vietnam for processing and brought back to the U.S. as “ready to cook” fishcakes. Parola’s Silverfin Group Inc. sell the cakes which gives consumers a low-cost protein alternative.

“We started off with Chef Parola about 10 years ago trying to find funding for any kind of carp product. We wanted to help find financial support to make any Asian carp product and show what could be done. Unfortunately, we could not find much in that area. However, now that the stepping stones are in place, Louisiana Sea Grant is helping make the public aware of Chef’s Asian carp cakes,” stated Julie A. Lively, Louisiana Sea Grant (LSG) and LSU AgCenter fisheries specialist. Currently, Parola is serving his cakes in a number of universities, such as Nicholls State and Tulane. He is set to serve in more universities in 2020. Lively, on behalf of LSG, is trying to get the products in LSU dining halls with the help of Michael Johnson, executive chef of LSU Tiger Athletics.

But can saying “let them eat cake” defeat the overwhelming number of Asian carp in U.S. waterways? No one knows. Although Parola has come up with a delicious solution, both government and conservationists alike think it may not put a dent into the ever-growing carp population.

“We do know that these Asian carp cakes are a start to something that can possibly help with the invasive species. It’s a creative and cost- efficient way of dealing with them,” Lively noted.

For those who want to catch and prepare Asian carp themselves, Louisiana Sea Grant, the LSU AgCenter, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey created a video on how to clean and cook Asian carp. The film is available for viewing in three segments online:

It is also is available on DVD from Louisiana Sea Grant for $6, to cover postage and handling, by emailing [email protected]. Copies picked up at Sea Grant’s offices at LSU are free.

Next year, an animinated video will be released on how to grill Asian carp.