Editorial: Asian carp burgers are definitely a matter of taste

July 16, 2012 at 11:39 AM

Chris McCloud, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, considers himself an Asian carp connoisseur. “I’ve had it a number of different ways from a number of different chefs, and it’s always good,” he said.

Last week folks who went to the Taste of Chicago got free samples of the invasive species that has taken over much of the Illinois River and prompted lawsuits from neighboring states worried that the fish might get into the Great Lakes.

The DNR, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, John G. Shedd Aquarium, Feeding Illinois, Illinois American Water and Dirk’s Fish and Gourmet Shop teamed up to offer 750 Asian carp miniburgers, i.e, sliders, to those who attended Taste of Chicago.

According to a story by The Associated Press, the carp sliders weren’t overly embraced. People didn’t say they hated them, but didn’t think they were special, either.

Asian carp does not taste anything like the common carp we’re familiar with in northern Illinois. Common carp are bottom feeders and have a muddy taste. Asian carp are surface feeders that eat plankton and lots of it. They consume about 40 percent of their body weight in plankton in a day. The taste of Asian carp has been compared to whitefish or tilapia, pretty good stuff.

Asian carp and common carp are bony fish, which makes preparing them a bit tricky.

Illinois has been fighting Asian carp for decades and has made progress in controlling the fish with a multipronged attack that includes commercial fishing, creating new markets and encouraging Illinois residents to deplete the fish population through fun events such as bowhunting tournaments.

Part of the new markets campaign is getting people to realize that the fish can be tasty. If enough people want to eat the fish, it could wind up on your favorite restaurant’s menu. The more people want them, the more commercial companies will fish for them, the fewer carp will be left. That’s good all around.

The goal is to create new markets and then hope they go out of business. Those fish are not supposed to be here.

Asian carp, a family of fish that includes bighead carp, silver carp, grass carp and black carp, were imported from China in the 1970s by catfish farmers in the South to control algae and snails in their ponds.

The fish were washed out of those farms and into the Mississippi River during floods in the 1990s. From the Mississippi they’ve made their way into the Illinois, Missouri and other rivers. Asian carp have been found in 27 states.

The fish are a threat to the ecosystems of the waters they inhabit. Their voracious appetites limit food supplies for other fish and wind up driving out native species.

That’s why neighboring states continue to push lawsuits to create a permanent barrier to keep the fish from getting into the Great Lakes. They fear that if the carp get in, a $7 billion fishing industry will be ruined.

The “eat ‘em to beat ‘em” philosophy is not a “gimmick,” McCloud said, The focus of promotional events such as the free sliders at the Taste is to highlight what the department is doing to protect the Great Lakes, one of the region’s and nation’s greatest resources.

As for eating the fish, we don’t know when it will be available around here. If you’re ever in Chicago, check out Dirk’s at 2070 N. Clybourn Ave. Dirk’s offers samples of its seafood and fish, including Asian carp, from noon to 3 p.m. Saturdays.