Executive chef Cartwright prepares Asian carp

Eric Cartwright, executive chef of campus dining services, prepares Asian carp in a variety of ways on Feb. 10 during an experimental taste test in Sabai's kitchen.

Mark Morgan is the project director of Eat Mo Carp and an associate professor for the MU School of Natural Resources.

Eat Mo Carp is a marketing-based strategy designed to promote awareness and consumption of Asian carp in grocery stores and restaurants in Missouri. I developed this idea after traveling to China, Vietnam and Thailand where I learned that carp are eaten regularly and highly revered in Asian culture, often featured in artwork and literature. In contrast, silver and bighead carp are regarded as “trash” fish in the U.S., mainly due to their appearance and boniness which makes them very difficult to fillet.

High densities of Asian carp throughout the Mississippi–Missouri River Basin pose serious problems for aquatic ecosystems. Asian carp are plankton-eaters, thus reducing primary food sources for native species such as catfish, paddlefish, buffalo and gizzard shad. Massive die-offs affect the enjoyment of our nation’s waterways because of bacterial contamination and the odor emanating from dead fish. Moreover, silver carp tend to leap from the water when disturbed, causing property damage and personal injury to recreational boaters. Efforts are underway by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prevent Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes, threatening a multi-billion dollar commercial and recreational fishing industry. Immediate attention is needed.

Invasive species such as Asian carp are difficult to eradicate once they occupy an ecological niche. Angling is not a solution since they cannot be caught by rod and reel. Carp tournaments only provide temporary relief. Commercial harvest is a viable option, but the supply of fish is much larger than current demand. Some uses include fertilizer, bait, fish oil and pet food. Human consumption is a solution if the image “problem” can be overcome. Schafer Fisheries in Thomson, Illinois, makes a 100 percent boneless product, similar to ground turkey. It looks great and no bones, bingo!

Silver carp are a plentiful, healthy and cheap source of protein. The white meat has a mild flavor which contains omega-3 fatty acids. It accepts spices and seasonings quite well. Silver carp have low levels of toxins, such as mercury, because of their mid-stream feeding behavior (people often confuse them with grass and common carp, both of which are bottom-feeders). Use of locally grown, harvested and processed food, such as Asian carp, is a good way to create consumer demand and address an important environmental issue in our nation’s waterways. This was a unique opportunity for me to merge social science with natural resources. All too often we hear of stories that pit jobs against the environment. Carp, in this context, represents a win-win situation.

Although education is important, it is not sufficient to change attitudes and behavior. Taste wins. Our research team conducted a blind taste test on campus and found that silver carp beat catfish by a significant margin (catfish is Missouri’s state fish). Armed with this new information, we gave some ground product to the MU Fisheries Club. They put the fun in fundraising and made some serious cash by serving carp chili and tacos. I talked Eric Cartwright, executive chef of campus dining services, into preparing some flying fish dishes for hungry college students. They swallowed it, “hook, line, & sinker” so to speak. As a result, Mizzou became the first in the nation to serve Asian carp on campus, thus battling a different kind of foe.

We also offered free carp samples at Moser’s Discount Grocery in Columbia and received some positive feedback from shoppers. Moser’s started carrying frozen one-pound tubes in October 2013, and sales have been steady ever since. Bass Pro in Springfield, Missouri, asked our team to be a food vendor at several outdoor events, including the 2015 National Bowfishing Tournament. Carp fear us.

Broadway Brewery in downtown Columbia has adopted and fully endorsed our project. After agreeing to the idea, we convinced them to kick-off their new menu with a benefit concert in June. It was a smashing success — 75 people attended the event, ate some delicious carp cuisine and listened to several local musicians. We provided T-shirts, and Bass Pro gave us some silent auction items. Since that time, carp spring rolls have outsold every other appetizer on the menu. Executive chef Eric Seidler has become the poster-child for Eat Mo Carp. Eric prepared carp for several of our events and is working on some recipes for a soon to be released cookbook.

The carp craze is catching on in grocery stores and restaurants in Missouri. You can become an active conservationist by simply embracing your inner carp. It’s a delicious way to remedy this environmental “problem” in the Midwest, one forkful at a time.

Carpe diem!

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Mary Kate Metivier.

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