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Eating Our Way Out of the Carp Dilemma

Julie Grant

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John Parker shows off his 18-pound carp
(Julie Grant)
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There's a dirty little secret among a growing number of anglers: They love fishing for carp. Yes, carp -- a bottom-feeding, invasive species that's had a bad rap for years among fishermen and cooks alike. But this weekend, hundreds of carp fishermen from around the world will gather in Baldwinsville, N.Y., for the American Carp Society's regional tournament. Reporter Julie Grant discovered the increasing interest in this sport could be good for the environment -- if only Americans would develop a taste for carp.

There are lots of sexy fish out there to catch: rainbow trout, salmon, bluegill, bass. Alan Anderson and his buddies are fishing at West Branch Park, along a small lake in Ohio. But Anderson said what they're catching doesn't get any respect.

"There are tons of closet carpers. They don't want to admit they fish for carp, but when the sun goes down, out they come -- along the banks, along the rivers."

Carp gets a bad rap. They root around in the mud for food. You can catch them right off a lakeshore or riverbank, and you don't even need a boat.

I was at the lake only five minutes when another angler, Dick Laubsher, got a bite on his line. He handed the rod to me, a complete novice, to reel it in. But Laubsher talked me through it. "Get a hold of the rod, just like this..."

The carp gave a good fight. We pulled it onto the shore, and it was something to see. It looked huge and weighed in at about 10 pounds. Some carp grow up to 60 pounds. They have been known to leap out of the water and break fisherman's arms and noses.

We looked at my carp a moment, then something strange happened: Laubsher let it go. "We gently put him back in the water to live for another day."

And that is the problem: Carp are taking over some U.S. rivers. Asian carp were brought to the United States to eat algae in farming ponds in the South, but they escaped those ponds in the early 1990s when the Mississippi River flooded.

"And they've been gradually working their way northward ever since," says food writer Taras Grescoe. Grescoe is the author of "Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood." He says carp are taking over the food supply in rivers and lakes, even eating the eggs of other fish.
"They tend to eat everything. They're voracious eaters of plankton."

Grescoe said carp eat nearly half their body weight every day. And the Asian carp have eaten their way up the Mississippi River -- if they get into the Great Lakes, there is concern they won't leave any food for game fish like bass and walleye.

So Grescoe has hatched an idea: If you can't beat them, eat them.

Carp is common on dinner tables in China. It's also used to make gefilte fish for the Jewish Passover meal. It's the traditional Christmas meal in the Czech Republic.

Grescoe says restaurants need to start creating carp dishes to entice people to try it. The fish needs some help -- carp flesh is pretty bland, similar to tilapia or catfish. "But it can be done in a number of nice ways, with a variety of soy sauces, marinades," he says. "It picks up flavor quite well, so there is potential for it."

But it has been a hard sell. People just don't want to try fish infamous for eating gunk off the bottom of rivers. The carp fisherman said pollution isn't the fish's fault -- it's humans who made the waters dirty.

Back at the lakeshore, anglers Richie Eldridge and Dick Laubscher defend their much-maligned friends. "They're a good looking fish," Eldridge says. "People don't give them enough credit. They've got nice colors on them, beautiful colors. Look at the golds on them."

Laubsher adds: "They're really pristine looking."

So, does Laubsher eat them?


As the carp population grows and pushes out other fish, we might just have to develop a taste for them -- whether we like it or not.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Thorsten Manns



    By David Bullock



    By Ronald Wagner

    From Decatur, IL, 07/28/2011

    Asian carp are not bottom feeders like common carp. They are top and middle feeders, and provide mild flesh. They are much better than common carp for the average person. Surprise them. Call it Silver Bass or something.

    By jeffrey linley

    From grosse ile, MI, 11/14/2009

    German carp are delicious smoked, and an old staple. Have to get a young one because of the accumulated heavy metals. Some areas are not as prone to the pollution as others, so larger fish may be eaten. Even the Big Head and Asian can be used for pet food and fertilizer. I truly believe that if we find a profitable use for them, they will be extinct in a few years.

    By Scott Townson

    From Hurst, TX, 05/27/2008

    Very confused writer must be faulted for lack of research! The common carp we fish for is not the same fish as the invasive bighead or silver Asian carp causing problems in the Mississippi river and other waterways.

    Common carp were imported from Germany by the US Department of the Interior in the late 1800's and stocked across the country as a food source for the immigrants moving westward.

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