THIBODAUX – Plopping a 25-pound Asian carp in all its glorious ugliness onto a table in the middle of a conference room is a sure-fire way to get an audience’s attention.
For Chef Philippe Parola it is the start of a familiar pitch: find a way to facilitate the consumption of the invasive species before it wrecks freshwater ecosystems in Louisiana, much as it already has in the upper Mississippi River valley.
But to bring the Asian carp to the dinner table is more than just a sales job, something Parola knows well. While the fish’s cooked flesh is tasty, it is very difficult to clean.
To make Asian carp, also known as silverfin, into a viable commodity, Parola envisions a processing plant that would debone the fish and sell it as a frozen fish product.
“To achieve that goal we must work together. Reaching out is very important,” he told the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP) invasive species action plan team Tuesday as members polished off a sample of a fried silverfin cake.
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Parola believes a processing plant, an idea that still needs investors, would not only help reduce the invasive species’ numbers, but also increase commercial fishing opportunities and develop a new source of domestic seafood.
Asian carp are nothing new to Louisiana waters. The species was first found in the state in the late 1980s, but Parola’s concern is that the problem could get much worse and start to resemble what areas of the upper Mississippi River valley are facing.
“When you launch the boat there, all you see is Asian carp,” he said.
Having traveled throughout the areas infested by this family of carp, collectively known as Asian carp, Parola said he’s seen whole river systems taken over.
In addition to out competing native fish and other aquatic life for food and habitat, the fish have a habit of leaping out of the water when disturbed by passing motor boats. With a fish that can reach record sizes of up to 100 pounds, this is an obvious boating hazard.
It was one of these flying fish that first caught Parola’s attention.
In 2009, he was working with the Food Network show Extreme Cuisine with Jeff Corwin and went out to catch an alligator gar in south Louisiana. While out in the Atchafalaya River basin, two large Asian carp jumped into the boat. Parola decided to cook them.
The results were surprising. When fried, the fish had a nice, firm texture and white flesh similar to snapper.
After years of experience getting people interested in eating alligator meat and trying the same with nutria, Parola decided his new challenge was to try to get Asian carp on the menu. The first step was to get the name changed since people associate carp with something less than edible. It was Parola who decided on the moniker “silverfin.”
It’s a marketing strategy that has been used with other fish with success such as when the slimehead was changed to Orange roughy or the Patagonian toothfish to Chilean sea bass.
The next step was to start taking fish around to chefs to see if they would be interested.
The Asian carp’s complicated bone structure made it a hard sell. It is more time consuming to clean than other fish and it turned out to be too much work for restaurants to make it a regular menu item, he said.
That’s when he started thinking and talking about a processing plant.
One problem was that there really isn’t much information about how big of a population exists in Louisiana. Bank investors wanted some certainty that if they financed a processing plant, the supply of fish would actually be available, Parola said. Now, he said, he’s working with private investors who are willing to take a few more risks because they can see opportunities, although he has not yet secured the funding.
Although biologists are sure the Asian carp is in Louisiana, the actual population size remains a mystery, at least for now.
“I know we have lots. As far as how many? We don’t know that,” said Mike Wood, director of inland fisheries for the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Michael Massimi, invasive species coordinator with BTNEP, agreed and said there just isn’t population information on the fish in the south in part because the fish is so hard to count. Shock boats used to count other fish in an area just scare the Asian carp away, while nets and traps are extremely time consuming and costly for use in a scientific study, he said.
There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that the population is large, “but you just don’t have it on paper. They’re just notoriously hard to sample,” Massimi said.
However, Wood said, if Asian carp became a commercial fishery, the state would be able to get a much better handle on the population because fishermen have to report their catch. It would also help the freshwater fishery in general, he said, which has been on the decline for years because of the influx of imported fish and aquaculture operations.
“I would love to see something like this come in,” he said about a processing plant for Asian carp.
Although there are no adult fish surveys planned, the department has been doing research into just where Asian carp might be reproducing in Louisiana and are testing a theory that they can’t reproduce in “soft water” which has a low calcium content.
Collections of larval specimens around the state in 2013 and 2014 are being analyzed now and hope to show that maybe these fish are limited in their spread by the water itself.
During the 2011 floods and the opening of the Bonnet Carré spillway, there was a fear that Asian carp in the river would make it into the north shore rivers of Lake Pontchartrain and take root there. Although adults were seen in those systems, it doesn’t appear that a breeding population has taken hold, Wood said.
The state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has been working with Parola for years and still supports the idea of a processing plant for domestic fish products, he said.
“At some point, it just had to sink or swim,” he said about the idea. “It’s a shame because the flesh of those fish is pretty darn good.”
Parola feels good that the project will swim. Chefs are always looking for that “new thing,” he said. Other favorable trends include the sustainable food movement and a growing push to promote the eating of invasive species as a means of control. Invasive species menu websites, promotional groups and even festivals are increasing around the country from cook-offs in Salem, Oregon to the push in Florida for people to eat more lionfish.
“If we don’t wake up and be proactive, we will regret it,” he said.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter @awold10.