Officials: Part of the problem with Asian carp is its name

In this 2019 photo by Post-Intelligencer outdoors writer Steve McCadams, Asian carp go wild as biologists perform a shocking demonstration below Barkley Dam to show just how many fish were staging below the lock and ready to migrate when gates opened.

Would you eat Asian carp?

What if it wasn’t called Asian carp?

What if it was called “silverfin” or some other label dreamed up by a marketing company?

When Tennessee’s top study panel devoted to the Asian carp issue here met last month in Paris, one of the items briefly discussed was the fact that “Asian carp” is not an attractive name when it comes to making the fish a popular item for humans to eat.

The state’s Asian Carp Advisory Commission met June 24 at the Holly Fork Shooting Complex in Henry County.

During that meeting, Mike Butler, CEO of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, said a few private companies hope to develop Asian carp into a desirable product for human consumption.

“We’ve been talking with the owner of a seafood company in Nashville. They think it could be a sustainable market,” Butler said.

Now, other organizations are looking into a name change for the imported fish species that has been causing problems in Tennessee and elsewhere throughout the South and Midwest, infesting numerous rivers.

The “Asian” part of the name is a concern to some people because of the apparent rise of anti-Asian hate crimes during the coronavirus pandemic.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has already changed the way it refers to the species, not calling it “Asian carp” anymore but changing it to “invasive carp” in April.

“We wanted to move away from any terms that cast Asian culture and people in a negative light,” said Charlie Wooley, director of the USFWS Great Lakes regional office.

The Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee, representing agencies in the United States and Canada that are trying to contain the carp, will do likewise Aug. 2, he said.


The word “carp” is problematic, too. Researchers who have spent years developing technologies to control the species’ spread has been trying to get more people to eat the critters.

But the dish hasn’t caught on with U.S. consumers, despite its popularity in much of the world. For many Americans, “carp” calls to mind the common carp, a bottom-feeder with a reputation for a “muddy” flavor and bony flesh.

“It’s a four-letter word in this country,” said Kevin Irons, assistant fisheries chief with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The four species described collectively as Asian carp — bighead, silver, grass and black carp — were brought from China a half-century ago to rid Southern sewage and aquaculture ponds of algae, weeds and parasites. They escaped into the wild and have migrated up the Mississippi and other major rivers. The Great Lakes and their $7 billion sport fishery are vulnerable.

Voracious and aggressive, silver and bighead gobble plankton that other fish need. Grass carp munch ecologically valuable wetland plants, and black carp feast on mussels and snails. Silvers can also hurtle from the water like missiles, causing nasty collisions with boaters.

So far they’ve been netted mostly for bait, pet food and a few other uses. Philippe Parola, a Louisiana chef, trademarked the label “silverfin” for Asian carp fishcakes he developed around 2009.

The state of Illinois and partner organizations hope a splashy media campaign in the works will get bigger results. Dubbed “The Perfect Catch,” it will describe Asian carp as “sustainably wild, surprisingly delicious” — high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids, low in mercury and other contaminants.

And it will give the fish a market-tested new name, which will remain secret until the makeover rollout, Irons said. A date hasn’t been announced.

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