Bruce Ucán chuckles. A guest sitting in the dining room of Mayan Café had just uttered the words “silver carp.” The owner and executive chef has misunderstood the words, and what his ears have picked up brings him a smile.
“Super-carp,” he said. “That’s a better name for it.”
Asian carp, sometimes known locally as silver carp, are a superfish in a way, because it sure seems they can’t be stopped, having infiltrated Kentucky lakes and rivers and critically endangering native species of fish through sheer reproductive prowess and ability to dominate resources. More powerful than a speeding locomotive, if you will. What’s more, schools of this invasive species, when disturbed, jump out of the water in groups — almost as if they’re flying, and they can knock people out of boats.
Neither bird nor plane, but super-carp.
For Ucán, super-carp refers more to this freshwater fish’s flavor, which he likens to mahi mahi or striped bass, and its culinary versatility. Nutritionally speaking, the carp is the equal to salmon in terms of being high in omega-3 fatty acids and lower in mercury than tuna or marlin. In that way, it’s a super-food.
And Asian carp is cost-effective when available, typically coming in several dollars a pound less than salmon. That’s where a new state initiative being overseen by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, in cooperation with an existing Kentucky fish distributor, comes in.
In January, Gov. Matt Bevin announced the formation of the Kentucky Fish Center in Wycliffe, Kentucky, with the purpose of enhancing the market for Kentucky-caught Asian carp, encouraging its harvesting and, thereby, fighting its invasive spread by turning it into food.
Obstacles to presenting Asian carp as a legitimate food option include the perception of what the fish actually is. Generally, once people taste Kentucky-caught Asian carp, they’re hooked — sometimes even wowed.
“I expected it to be like catfish,” Ucán said, recalling his first taste, which came by way of a sample more than two years ago. “I was totally shocked. I’m very picky about our fish. It’s not fishy at all.”
Asian carp is now a staple on the Mayan Café menu as well as in tacos at the sister business, Mayan Food Truck, located at Gravely Brewing Co. Ucán has even made ceviche with the fish, a testament to its adaptability and pleasing flavor.
Yet somehow Asian carp has remained something of a secret here, even in a state that literally is overrun with the highly edible species.
A fish from Asia in Kentucky?
Asian carp — which includes silver carp, bighead carp, black carp and grass carp — were transported to several Southern states in the 1960s to help clean ponds and fish farms of unwanted aquatic weeds and algae blooms. Somehow — perhaps during flooding — they escaped into the lakes and waterways.
Ron Brooks, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s fisheries director, said the fish became a problem in Illinois in the 1980s and into the 1990s, but it wasn’t a problem that made ripples in Kentucky waters at that point.
“In Kentucky, in 1997, nobody even knew what it was,” he said. “They didn’t really start building up numbers until the 2000s in Kentucky water. Now, they’re everywhere.”
What started as a regional problem became more and more serious as the fish spread through the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri and Illinois rivers. There have even been sightings of them in the Ohio around Louisville. Because some female Asian carp can spawn up to 1 million offspring per year, the species seems impossible to eradicate.
Containment programs have taken on various forms, such as the Asian Carp Harvest program that has monitored and fished Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley since 2013. According to a Department of Fish and Wildlife study, between 2013 and 2018, nearly 4 million pounds of Asian carp were pulled from the two lakes.
One effort that happened six years ago was a fishing tournament called Carp Madness with a single event on Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, where Asian carp are a problem. That event gave commercial fishers a chance to see how many they could catch over a certain time period.
In 2018, a second Carp Madness was held, this time featuring exclusively bow fishing.
“We had been told by commercial fishermen that they were catching them in the lakes,” said Jessica Morris, fisheries biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “People didn’t know they were here. That helped bring attention to the fact they were in Kentucky lakes in great numbers.”
The problem, of course, is that the Asian carp were squeezing out the native game fish and hampering commercial fishing efforts. Carp Madness was designed more to bring attention to the problem than to pull the carp from the lakes, but last year’s event brought 82 teams, most of them four-person entries, to see how many they could shoot in a night to compare to what commercial anglers can do in the same amount of time. It was so well attended that it was one of the top-five fishing tournaments in the nation last year, Morris said.
Other efforts include trying out new nets and other gear to help anglers catch Asian carp. Research is ongoing.
“It is a big problem, and there are a lot of different people working on it from different angles,” Morris said. She has a five-person staff whose full-time job is to study Asian carp containment and work with other departments to develop ways to combat the species.
Fighting them with science
One of those projects is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife-funded barrier project at Lake Barkley Dam. This virtual barrier which is being called a Bio-Acoustic Fish Fence, will use sound, bubbles and light to create what, according to Morris, is “essentially a wall the fish won’t pass through, in theory.”
This is in part a response to the species’ signature jumping — Asian carp are known to jump high in the air, sometimes endangering fishing and recreational boats. Studies have discovered that when triggered by noise or other factors, the fish will either dive deeper into the water or jump out of it, Morris said. The virtual barrier is a way to take advantage of that behavior.
“They’re very attuned to their environment and very sensitive to noise and motion,” Brooks said. “One guy reported he was flying a drone three or four feet over Kentucky Lake and that caused them to jump. They’re just very skittish fish.”
But that knowledge is what led to the idea for the sound barrier at Barkley Dam: “We can hurt these fish with noise now,” Brooks said. “We will use that to their detriment.”
Sort of an Asian carp kryptonite. Morris said the Bio-Acoustic Fish Fence will hopefully be turned on in May. Whether it will work as planned, officials will find out then.
“We’re holding our breath,” she said.
Of course, if fishing tournaments help identify ideal methods for catching the carp and virtual walls may help turn them away, killing and eating may be the only sure way to help lower numbers.
But, what about just eating them?
The goal over the next five years is to begin eliminating 20 million pounds of Asian carp annually through commercial fishing around the state by subsidizing prices to encourage commercial fishers to target the fish. Until now, the most poundage ever pulled from Kentucky lakes and streams by anglers in a year has been about 2 million, according to Brooks.
But rather than shelling out an estimated $3.5 million to launch the program using state funds, Kentucky negotiated a partnership with a private company, Two Rivers Fisheries, which will own and operate the fish center. Asian carp caught in Kentucky will be sold via online daily auctions that will be overseen by the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
Fishers will get a guaranteed price of 19 cents per pound with the help of a 5-cent incentive provided by the department. The fish center will process the fish and ship it to buyers around the world, making the fish more available and hopefully helping to grow the market.
Part of the initiative involves a state loan of $734,000 to Two Rivers, with annual incentives up to $700,000 for hitting goals. If the goal of ridding Kentucky waters of 20 million pounds of Asian carp annually is met by 2024, the loan will be forgiven.
The money will be used in part to arm anglers with equipment to catch the fish and in part for infrastructure, specifically equipment that will process the fish more quickly — currently, Two Rivers Fisheries processes Asian carp by hand, a time-consuming process because of the fish’s bony structure.
‘I call it our asset’
Angie Yu, president of Two Rivers Fisheries, said the company is the biggest Asian carp processor in the U.S., in part because it has seen the fish as an opportunity for some time. She also understands and appreciates the enormity of what Kentucky is trying to accomplish.
“Asian carp, you can never get all of them out,” Yu said. “They will stay. It endangers our ecological system. We need to do something to control the population. But I see this another way: The fresh water fish industry is a big industry. I call it our asset. If we use it right we can reduce the fish and redefine them as good food. I think this is the right time.”
She said the efforts will not only offer opportunities for anglers, but will also create jobs for processing, packaging and other roles. She sees the Kentucky Fish Center as a “problem-to-profit” project.
“This is a public and private entity, so this is a new thing in our state,” Yu continued, adding she is confident because she already exports Asian carp to 11 different countries, plus she knows the fishers and she knows the market for Asian carp.
Fortunately, there is a long history of utilizing Asian carp as a food source, even if it may be slow going in America for one specific reason.
One customer at Mayan Café saw the words “Kentucky silver carp” on the menu and loudly complained.
“This stuff is gross,” the man told the server, café general manager Anne Shadle recalls. “You should not be serving it.”
That’s the Kentucky take on the term “carp,” because all our lives we were taught that carp was a muddy, gross, bottom-feeding fish — a poor man’s catfish. Common carp, as the native species is known, was (and still is) a fish you would never, ever serve to a guest as food and, in fact, you would throw back if you caught it with a rod and reel.
An Asian carp is a different kind of fish with different feeding habits.
But this type of response from customers prompted Ucán and Shadle to change the name of the fish on the menu to “Kentucky blue snapper” for a short time.
Problem was, they quickly realized that by calling it a different name, it seemed as though the restaurant was trying to hide something — customers would ask what a Kentucky blue snapper was, the word “carp” would inevitably come up, and the unintended consequences were worse than the problem they were trying to solve.
Other names for Asian carp that have been noted include Kentucky carp, Kentucky bluefin, Western Kentucky silver carp and Kentucky flying fish. But in many other countries, Asian carp is as familiar as cod is in America, with a few differences. The Japanese eat it in the form of surimi, a type of fish paste. Many cultures eat the fish whole, with diners simply picking around the bones for the flaky, flavorful meat. In America, that’s a much tougher sell.
“We kind of got spoiled when we started fileting fish here,” Brooks said. This is why the bulk of the Asian carp caught by Two Fisheries is processed and exported. But the American palate is warming up to the fish, and increasing the harvesting of the fish can only help here in Kentucky.
“They taste really good and they’re low on contaminates,” Brooks said. “They don’t have the muddy taste like the common carp does and they’re probably the most nutritious fresh water fish. But people can’t get common carp out of their head when they hear ‘carp.’”
Meghan Levins, head chef at Monnik Beer Co., has been serving Asian carp regularly for some time, having initially received samples she turned into fried fish tots. Every Monday at Monnik, she rolls out a fried fish dinner using Asian carp, and she occasionally does other dishes with the fish, such as a recent po boy special.
Best of all, she hasn’t heard of any complaints over the word “carp,” and instead said the key is to bill the fish as a sustainable option: “If you can preach the story, they get excited about it.” Shadle agrees that the key is to educate employees about what the fish is.
Levins said she was “sold instantly” when she tried Asian carp and has found it to be a versatile option for just about any application. Forget the name, she said — whatever you want to call it, Asian carp should be on the plate. For comparison, the popular dish known as super white tuna in your favorite sushi bar is actually an unattractive-looking fish called escolar. Like Asian carp, it’s cheap and sustainable, but it sounds more appetizing to customers when passed off as a version of tuna.
“The whole thing is made up,” Levins said. “In seafood, 90 percent of the names are made up. We make up these names to make them sound appealing.”
FIn Gourmet Foods, based in Paducah, Kentucky, is the main restaurant supplier for Asian carp in the state, and it’s a business that identified the species as a quality food source through research several years ago. CEO Lula Luu co-founded the company with colleague John Crilly, both of whom discovered the species’ potential as academicians studying the effect of the species in New Orleans.
FIn was launched in New Orleans in 2010, in part, to create jobs to assist people affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, later moving to Kentucky to take advantage of the availability of the fish here. Through participating in an agriculture accelerator program in Louisville, they met chefs like Ucán. They now provide Asian carp to restaurants all over the country, and Luu said even President Barack Obama was treated to the fish while in the White House.
Luu, who grew up in Vietnam, sells the fish in many forms, including fish cakes that are based on her mother’s recipe, echoing a food she grew up eating. Like Levins, Luu finds the fish to be extremely versatile. At this point, she has trouble keeping up with the demand, with clients in high-end restaurants from Miami to New Haven, Conn.
Unlike Two Rivers, most of the Asian carp brought to her each day by anglers stays in the United States. She said fish under 15 pounds become surimi, but the rest is filleted and sold, often fresh to restaurants like Mayan Café. Because it is local, it is some of the freshest fish a diner can find in the state.
“You can go to the Mayan Café and say, ‘Hey, the fish today was delicious. Do you know who caught it?” she said. “[Ucán] can call me and say, ‘The fish you sent me this morning: Can you tell me who caught it?’ I can tell him. And I can tell him who processed it and who packaged it.”
That’s another great virtue of the fish, and that’s why the chefs who have bought into it believe it is here to stay. It’s been served at Ward 426, The Oak Room and Equus Restaurant and Jack’s Lounge among others, so don’t be surprised if it starts jumping onto other menus around town. Super-carp, indeed.
“It could easily take over as the whitefish of Kentucky,” Levins said.
Once it becomes more available and more recognizable as food — which is part of the goal of the Kentucky Fish Center initiative — it can hopefully shake the stigma attached to the word “carp.” Who knows? Late-summer church fish-fries might end up swimming with Asian carp. Let’s face it, the fish certainly isn’t leaving Kentucky’s waterways anytime soon. As a culinary culture, we may as well grab a fork and embrace it.
“My staff said, ‘It’s been here long enough, let’s get it its citizenship,’” Luu said with a chuckle. •