Asian Carp: a fish with a widely held stigma of being a “trash fish.”
Bottom feeders – so plentiful in numbers that surely they are some type of mutant – that eat all the garbage and toxic scum, causing them to be unfit to eat. Because of this, fishermen and fisherwomen generally ignore Asian Carp, which has led to massive overpopulation and the ravaging of ecosystems and other fish populations.
But this stigma of the Asian Carp’s downright nastiness may not be as accurate as some might think and, in fact, might be downright false.
Fisherman and St. Charles native Joseph Classen, who spends plenty of time winding through the many watery hunting grounds in St. Charles County, has published a book called “Eat the Enemy!,” which is essentially an all-encompassing field guide to “Turning the Asian Carp Invasion Into Healthy, Delicious Cuisine.”
Classen grew up fishing the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. His love for the outdoors brought him all the way out to the remote Kodiak Island of Alaska where he led tours through the Alaskan wilderness.
“Growing up, me and my best friends practically lived on the rivers on the weekends,” Classen said. “It was our passion, fishing on the Mississippi and the Missouri. When I was a kid I didn’t think about all the conservation issues going on but by the time we got into our late teens and early twenties, we noticed that the catfish populations and the game fish populations were rapidly, rapidly declining.”
He also noted that even the quality of fish that they would catch was in decline, as if they were malnourished.
“We had heard about these massive invading hordes of Asian Carp jumping out of the water but never really experienced it ourselves. We just heard through the grapevine that that these Asian Carp had a huge role in decimating the wildlife habitat and the food sources for the native fish,” Classen said.
Classen said that it really hit him, how bad the problem was, when one day he was fishing on the shore and a boat passed by out in the channel and the water around the boat exploded with Asian Carp, flying this way and that out of the water.
He reeled his line in quickly to get out of the wake and hooked one of the carp.
“It was the first time I actually saw one of these things and I was thinking holy cow, they are real,” Classen said.
According to Classen, the fish was brought to America back in the 1800s as a sport fish. Then, the combination of how fast they reproduce and Americans’ lack of interest or knowledge about the fish, has led to mass overpopulation and ecosystem damage.
While in Alaska, Classen and his family got so accustomed to eating the highest quality of seafood day in and day out that he himself was able to catch in droves.
So when the Classens moved back to the area and he couldn’t catch the same volume of high quality edible fish, he wondered how to go about getting his family good fish to eat, especially because high quality fish is rather expensive here.
“You can’t catch like 500 bluegill and feed your family for a week you know,” Classen said.
“I vaguely remembered hearing something about how these Asian Carp were actually supposed to be pretty good to eat and I remember hearing something vague that they were actually a very nutritious fish,” Classen said.
Classen started researching the fish, of course finding countless articles on the problems their overpopulation was causing in rivers, maybe some articles on solutions but not much on the edibility of the fish.
He discovered articles detailing a gourmet chef based in Louisiana that had kind of used Asian Carp as an anchor and center point for his cuisine.
But Classen still struggled to find anything science-based on the reason these fish could be safe to eat.
“I couldn’t find anything specifically talking about why are these fish healthy and nutritious when they live in the same polluted waters as these other ones,” Classen said.
He eventually tracked down some information from the Missouri Department of Conservation, but nothing substantial or science based like he was looking for.
Classen eventually noticed a recurring name in several of the studies that he read. That name was Dr. Quinton Phelps.
Phelps has been a natural resource professional for more than 20 years and is currently the professor of fisheries science at Missouri State University, and, according to Classen, he is one of the leading experts in the country on the Asian Carp invasion.
I sent him an email saying ‘I’d like to talk to you about these fish.’ Specifically, their nutritional value and how it’s possible that they remain healthy and clean while they are living in the same toxic toilet bowl water,” Classen said.
Classen half expected to never hear from Phelps, but was gleefully surprised when not 15 minutes later, he received a call.
“He was totally excited to talk to somebody who was interested in this, so we really hit it off. He really became the scientific advisor for this book,” Classen said.
The reason Asian Carp are safe to eat is because they are filter feeders and do not bioaccumulate toxins like other fish do.
“A lot of the studies that they’ve done, especially in Illinois and here in Missouri, the ones that they have researched, their levels of mercury and other marine toxins don’t even register on the action levels of the EPA and the FDA. It’s literally one of the healthiest fish in the world,” Classen said.
Blind taste tests have been conducted all over the country, where Asian Carp has been put up against cod, tilapia, catfish and other commonly eaten white fish. And according to Classen, almost unanimously, people prefer Asian Carp.
“People hear the word carp and they think disgusting, nasty thing. People just cannot seem to get over that negative stigma. That’s the biggest hurdle. This book in one sense is meant to be an educational tool and a motivational tool,” Classen said.
Classen pointed to fish such as monkfish, Chilean sea bass or orange roughy – which are all now some of the most expensive and sought after fish in the seafood market – all of which used to be considered trash fish.
It took name changes and marketing efforts to change peoples’ views on them.
So where can Asian Carp be found? Everywhere.
“If they have a boat, anywhere on the river you’ll find tons of them. They are really everywhere,” Classen said.
He said that a spot he like is the Marais Temps Clair Conservation Area north of St. Charles.
“Eat the Enemy!,” which includes a forward from Phelps, is broken up into four parts. Part one is “Asian Carp Odyssey.” Part two is titled “Enemy Profile” and goes into breaking that negative stigma surrounding the Asian Carp as a food source.
Part three is called “How To Harvest and Process Asian Carp” and Part four is called “Cooking Asian Carp,” where Classen includes 50 recipes for different ways to try the fish.
The book can be found on Amazon or through Classen’s website, www.wildrevelation.com