By KAREN HERZOG, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MUKWONAGO, Wis. (AP) - Chef Jimmy Wade isn't transforming his Heaven City Restaurant near Mukwonago into a house of flying carp just yet.
But the adventurous chef, who hosts twice-a-year wild game dinners, is planning an "invasivore" dinner menu in February as part of his Tapas Tuesday series.
On the menu: Carp Cakes, Smoked Carp Steak and Carp Napoleon, featuring a few invasive Asian carp species from the Illinois River that threaten to breach the Great Lakes.
"If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em." That's the mantra of an emerging group of environmentally conscious foodies dubbed "invasivores" in a recent New York Times story. Wade hopes to entice them to his restaurant with surprisingly tasty invasive species entrDees. He'd also be happy just to attract a crowd of adventurous diners.
"Lots of people will try anything once," said Wade, whose enthusiasm is fed by childhood memories of gigging pesky cownose rays with a pitchfork in the shallows of Chesapeake Bay. The rays with 3-foot wingspans are native to the bay, but wreak havoc by destroying underwater grass beds and devouring valuable oysters and clams.
Fish biologists and environmental groups warn that trying to get rid of an invasive species by eating it isn't the best way to beat it.
Human predators could help slow the Asian carp's rapid march toward the Great Lakes, they say. That could buy valuable time for a permanent solution to eradicate the voracious carp, which destroys the ecosystem and is known for its ability to leap out of water like a flying torpedo.
It also could be dangerous to create a taste for Asian carp in the U.S., critics say. If market demand forced biologists to manage a sustainable Asian carp fishery, instead of eliminating the fish, it could threaten waters beyond the Great Lakes, said Duane Chapman, a fish biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and one of the nation's top Asian carp experts.
"It doesn't matter if 97 percent of the population hates it," Chapman said. "It only takes one guy to move the fish to a new place because he likes it. A fisherman with a bait bucket intentionally stocking them in a reservoir would be a very bad thing."
"Eating them is not going to have a substantial impact on the population," Chapman said. "We're not going to see eradication by fishing them down like passenger pigeons," which were wiped out after humans developed a taste for them. "It only takes one mating pair (of Asian carp) to breach the Great Lakes."
Josh Mogerman, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, agrees.
'Just eat them all' is pithy and easy, and it makes everyone feel good, but it doesn't solve the problem," he said. "
"It isn't an 'out' for people who don't want to take important, big actions." Mogerman said. "It's one tactic in the fight - one tool in the tool chest. Slowing down the advance is important, but it's not the solution."
Expanding the commercial Asian carp export market to China is among several measures outlined in the Obama administration's "2011 Asian Carp Control Strategy Framework," a $47 million plan to prevent the jumbo carp from infesting the Great Lakes. China already has a taste and demand for the mild, flaky, white fish, which is considered a delicacy.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn announced a $2 million program last July to boost commercial fishing for Asian carp on stretches of the Illinois River and sell them in China. The state contracted with a Chinese meat processing company and an Illinois commercial fishing company to harvest 30 million pounds from Illinois rivers.
Asian carp can jump across the length of a boat. Fishermen literally herd them into nets or shock them out of the water. The fish don't take bait off hooks. They eat plankton, not other fish.
The Asian grass carp was introduced deliberately into the U.S. in 1963 for aquatic weed control. Another species, silver carp, was imported from Asia in the 1970s to control algae growth in aquaculture and municipal wastewater treatment facilities, but it quickly escaped captivity.
Chapman acknowledges they can be delicious. He has a three-part video series on YouTube that takes viewers from a boat, with Asian carp leaping all around, to the kitchen, where he explains how to debone and cook the fish.
The major downsides of cooking Asian carp are their low meat yield - 20 percent to 25 percent - and their heavy bone structure, he says.
They're filter feeders, and don't look or taste like common carp, which are bottom feeders.
Asian carp feed extremely low on the food chain, where contaminants aren't much of an issue, Chapman says. That makes them better eating fish - low in contaminants and fat, with mild meat that tastes like cod, he says.
Making Asian carp menu-worthy in the U.S. probably would require changing its name, as "carp" is considered an unappetizing four-letter word. Some have suggested calling it Kentucky carp or silverfin.
Wade isn't planning to change the name on his invasivore menu. But he will offer plenty of other tapas options for those not interested in Asian carp, which will be priced in the $8 to $12 range for the Feb. 1 reservations-only dinner.
Marc Gaden, spokesman for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, is all for the entrepreneurial spirit.
"One of the great things about North Americans is when they're dealt lemons, they make lemonade," Gaden said. "But very often, they forget that they weren't drinking lemonade in the first place, and don't even like it."
If policy makers "don't focus on prevention like a laser beam, then you have to learn to live with what comes into the Great Lakes, and ultimately you will disrupt what you enjoy," Gaden said. "It never will be as good as what Mother Nature gave you, which is suited to the environment you have."
Creating a market here for Asian carp would be "surrendering and making do with what you've been dealt - not what Mother Nature intended," said Gaden.
It makes sense to create a market for an already established invasive species, such as nutria, "because they're already everywhere they're going to go," said Chapman.
Nutria is a large South American rodent resembling a beaver. It was brought to the U.S. to establish a fur farm industry, and by 1962, replaced the native muskrat as the leading fur-bearer in Louisiana. When it escaped from captivity, it caused widespread destruction in the Louisiana wetlands, the East Coast and Pacific Northwest, feeding on vegetation and leaving marshes pitted with holes and deep swim canals.
Unfortunately, "nutria tastes awful," said Milwaukee chef David Swanson, who makes a living by sourcing local foods from farms for area restaurants through Braise on the Go.
Swanson experimented with nutria while working at a New Orleans restaurant in the early 1990s. "It's like leather cowhide," he recalled. "We tried to braise it, but it still tasted like gamy squirrel."
The nonprofit international organization Slow Food works to create a demand for endangered foods to prevent their extinction.
Creating demand for Asian carp goes against the goal of eradicating a species, said Swanson, a local Slow Food leader.
"I think you're much better off trying to eradicate them another way," the chef said. "For it to catch on, it has to be rooted in something more than a feel-good movement to help out the environment."
Matthew Smith, land manager at the Schlitz Audubon Center in Bayside, agrees there are limits to what can be accomplished by eating invasive species.
He cited garlic mustard, introduced in the U.S. as a culinary herb.
"It took a while for garlic mustard to escalate to where it is today - a horrible invasive pest to our woodlands," Smith said.
Some people like to eat it in pesto. "But you don't want people to keep patches of garlic mustard because they like it in pesto," he said.
In general, Smith said, "It's a bleak future with more and more invasive plants and areas that are lost causes.
"But we can't really eat our woods clean."
Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)