by Louisiana Seafood News
Louisiana Chef Philippe Parola has had his eye on the Asian carp situation in Louisiana for several years, and he is not shy about expressing his worry and frustration over the slow bureaucracy of addressing what he sees as a serious threat to the ecosystem and the state’s multi-million dollar recreational and commercial fishing industry.
“People in Louisiana need to be aware of the problem, especially our policymakers,” says Parola, citing waterways in Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Illinois where bighead and silver carp have overtaken manmade lakes and sections of rivers. “We do not want to be in the same boat as these other states. If we are not proactive in handling the Asian carp issue, in 10 years, it will be too late. This will be a much bigger and more expensive problem to deal with.”
70′s Fish Ponds Cleaners
Filter feeding bighead and silver carp were introduced to fish farm ponds in the central Midwest in the 1970s to clean murky pond water. Flooding along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers caused ponds to overflow, allowing these Asian carp to escape into rivers and reproduce in the wild. Depending on the size and age, a mature female can release anywhere from 100,000 to 3 million eggs each spawning, says research fish biologist Duane Chapman, leader of Asian Carp Research with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Columbia, MO. Asian carp can consume more than 20 percent of their body weight per day in algae and plankton, and can weigh up to 100 pounds.
Between 1991 and 2000, the Asian carp population dramatically increased in the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. Today, commercial fishers on the Illinois River often catch 25,000 pounds of bighead and silver carp per day, according to the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee, a coalition of federal, state and local agencies working on Asian carp control programs to protect the Great Lakes from an invasion.
Trickling Down Mississippi to Louisiana
The Asian carp population has naturally trickled down the Mississippi River and into Louisiana’s waterways over the years, but the massive 2011 Mississippi flood created another unfortunate opportunity: the opening of the Bonnet Carre spillway to relieve floodwaters let loose Asian carp into the Tangipahoa and Tchefuncte Rivers, as well as the brackish coastal marshes.
USGS biologist Chapman says that evidence of bighead and silver carp living in the salty, brackish waters of coastal Louisiana is worrisome because the fish family they belong to is typically restricted to freshwater. “Asian carp appear to be the exception, which was a complete shock to us,” says Chapman. “We don’t have any real data yet on the effects of the fish on brackish water populations of other species. We don’t know what will happen, but we are very concerned.”
If Asian carp can survive and thrive in the brackish estuaries that form Louisiana’s coastline, the fear is that the fish could decimate Louisiana’s coastal fishing industry, says Parola. Shrimp, oyster, blue crab and other finfish all rely on those plankton-rich waters at some point in their life cycle, but if Asian carp establish a population, they could damage the already fragile ecosystem.
Chapman also notes that even if Asian carp can’t reproduce in brackish waters, the fish can find their way from those marshes into more freshwater lakes and rivers by way of storm surges and porous inlets along the coast.
An Invasive Species
There is limited research available on the Asian carp population in Louisiana because fish populations are difficult to measure, says Mike Wood, director of inland fisheries at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF). According to Wood, LDWF has conducted biomass samplings in coastal areas and a new round of larval samplings in freshwater areas will start this year to get more accurate information on the population.
“Asian carp is an invasive species and we know it is expanding its range in some areas,” says Wood. “We are not certain of the impact they’ll have, but we are concerned. With the larval sampling, we hope to determine the extent that they’ve established in Louisiana.”
In the meantime, Parola is waging a campaign that mirrors similar work addressing invasive aquatic species: if you can’t beat it, eat it. The flesh of Asian carp is light, mild and flaky, akin to delicate crabmeat, Parola says.
The problem is, the fish suffer from a serious image problem: people confuse Asian carp with common carp, a bottom-feeding species with a stronger, fishier flavor.
“People mistakenly think Asian carp is a ‘trash fish’. It also has an incredibly complex bone structure, which makes it very difficult to clean,” says Parola, who has also worked to promote eating alligator, wild boar and nutria in campaigns aimed at population control. “Right now, there’s no value to encourage commercial fishermen to get out there to catch it.”
Now Parola is on a mission – not only to preach the delicious virtues of Asian carp (which would be marketed as “silverfin” to overcome negative associations), but to pave the way for creating a sustainable fish and food processing plant that can support a commercial Asian carp fishing industry. Several things need to happen to complete Parola’s vision – namely, changing fishery regulations that limit catch and making it a profitable, appealing industry for commercial fishermen.
“Without commercial fishermen, you have no business,” Parola says. “My first goal is to make policymakers aware of the problem, and to make Asian carp a marketable catch so fishermen know there is money to be made with these fish and a long-term benefit to getting them out of our waterways.”