MU professor tries to beat invasive species by making folks eat ’em

By Siddharth Vodnala

The queue moves quickly. Each person in line walks up to a huge steel pot, hesitantly takes a glob of something reddish brown and sits back down. As they start eating, some faces screw up in puzzlement, while some folks make appreciative noises. A woman, nodding continuously, says, “Tastes like chicken, for sure.” Someone else thinks it has the “texture of ground turkey.” Others remain puzzled and silent.

When the organizers announce what the food is, a collective gasp and groan ripple through the crowd. “No way!” someone says, while a couple of others shake their heads. Smiles and nods fill the room.

“It’s yummy.”

“I would never have guessed.”

One woman stops eating the moment the ingredient is disclosed. It’s carp.

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Jumping Asian carp at the Big Muddy National Fish & Wildlife Refuge in Missouri. Image Credit U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters.

Jumping Asian carp at the Big Muddy National Fish & Wildlife Refuge in Missouri. Image Credit U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters.

Asian carp were primarily introduced in the 1970’s to control algae in fish farms. Almost immediately they escaped into the wild.

Their population has exploded due to their adaptability, tolerance to a wide range of environments, high reproduction rate and lack of native predator fish.  They compete for food with native fish, ,and they also cause serious harm to boaters by leaping out of the water when startled by boat motors, causing property damage and injury.

Today, Asian carp pose a serious threat to river ecosystems, and the fishing and tourism economy reliant on them.

It could get worse if the fish make it into the Great Lakes, threatening its $7 billion fishing industry and $16 billion recreational boating industry. People seem willing to try almost anything, including electrical barrierspoison and a light-sound-bubble barrier to frighten the carp away.

But these solutions only delay the inevitable, experts say. “It is only a matter of time before some of them start making it across,” said Duane Chapman, a fish biologist with the U.S. Geological Service in Columbia.

This is where Mark Morgan, an Associate Professor in the Natural Resources department at MU, comes in. He has an old-fashioned solution: if you can’t beat ‘em, then eat ‘em.

Morgan has been the force in Columbia behind efforts to popularize the eating of Asian silver carp as a way to control its explosive growth. 

Other experts say this strategy could actually make a difference. “The only significant way in which we can reduce Asian carp populations currently is to harvest them. The other methods are still mostly being developed,” said Quinton Phelps, another USGS fish biologist.

While the required numbers are far more than what Morgan’s humble carp movement is able to muster right now, Phelps said this is “absolutely a step in the right direction.” “This is the only ticket we have right now,” he said.

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“I’m an ideas man,” Morgan said, sitting in his office, dense with fishing paraphernalia and road memorabilia.  “I like to think about big problems.”

Morgan with a fish he gigged, or hunted with a spear. Image Credit Mark Morgan.

Morgan with a fish he “gigged,” or hunted with a spear. Image Credit Mark Morgan.

The scale or size of such problems does not seem to bother him. For instance, Morgan describes himself as a devout Christian, but when he saw that the first four books of the Gospel had “redundant parts” and did not flow chronologically, he saw that as a problem.

He remedied it by writing a book that flowed in a chronological manner, describing Jesus’s life from beginning to end. “It sold quite well, and I made up most of the money I invested in it,” Morgan said, with a hearty laugh.

Morgan and his team – consisting of graduate students Tim Wall and Yun Ho – have recently tried to grapple with another big idea:  Get people to love carp. “Let’s face it, they’re not gonna win any beauty contests,” Morgan joked about the fish.

Mention carp and most people don’t think of it as food. The challenge that lay before them was no less than to change the image of an entire species of fish.

******

Morgan’s life has been filled with fish. He grew up outside Atlanta, Georgia, in sparsely populated area which he could explore. For a suburban childhood, it was surprisingly close to nature. “It was like a wilderness utopia,” he recalls. “That’s where I grew to love the outdoors.”

Morgan recalls that there were two lakes nearby, which kindled his lifelong love of fishing. “I was catching crawfish, salamander and just having a lot of fun goofing off near the water.” He didn’t always catch fish, but that wasn’t the point.

“Just sitting there for hours with a fishing rod or going out with my friend and his dad on their boat, being at one with the lake and the fish and the nature all around me was what excited me.”

Morgan’s childhood was shaped by that love for exploration. And it seems to have extended to the philosophy of his life.

“Every time I caught fish, it would be like an Aha! moment,” he said, “but I wasn’t anxiously waiting for that. It was about living in the present and enjoying every second.  That’s what I now try to do, even when I’m not fishing.”

Even as he moved away from his childhood home, he did not lose his childhood passion for the outdoors. He got a Ph.D. from Texas A&M University in Parks, Recreation and Tourism studies.

At MU, Morgan teaches classes in outdoor recreation management and policy. His research centers on the human dimensions of natural resources, especially the way in which they relate to public policy, visitor behavior, and communications. His work intersects with fishing in interesting ways, as evidenced by his published academic papers on topics like fire fishing in Missouri, the socio-cultural aspects of paddlefish anglers, and “Catfish wars and cultural history.”

Once, Morgan traveled to Vietnam as a Fulbright scholar. “Life there was so simple, and in tune with nature,” he said. That visit made him look at environmental issues in a new light, with new eyes.

He would need those new eyes, for unbeknownst to most people, there was an adversary lurking beneath America’s rivers. Of course, the enemy did not know Mark Morgan either.

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Morgan first thought about the carp problem almost 4 years ago, at the Redneck fishing tournament in Bath, Illinois. When Morgan went there to fish, he saw that they were catching all these carp and throwing them into landfills. “We were literally wasting tons of food.”

It was then that the idea of eating carp struck Morgan. Morgan said that he thought to himself: “We’re not eating a perfectly good fish and letting them grow uncontrolled in our rivers. We’re destroying our own environment!” Armed with this realization, Morgan and his team marched ahead in their battle to change the image of carp. 

Morgan’s team began doing “taste tests” of carp in 2014. This survey provided Morgan with plenty of ammunition: Among carp, tilapia and catfish, carp was voted behind tilapia but ahead of catfish, widely known as Missouri’s “state fish.”

Next, they surveyed a group of anglers about carp. The questions varied from “How do you find the taste of carp?” to “Rank the following 10 common fish.” Carp ranked lowest, but the team chalked that up to lack of education about carp.

Morgan has been successful in getting carp to Moser’s Discount Foods.

Ron Baucom, meat manager at Moser’s said that sales of the carp that Morgan and his team have helped introduce have been strong. “Most of the fish sell out on the same day,” Baucom said. He stocks both fish heads and whole fish in different sections of the store. Fish heads are a delicacy in China, Morgan said.

Frozen carp at Moser's Discount Foods. Picture credit: Siddharth Vodnala

Frozen carp at Moser’s Discount Foods. Picture credit: Siddharth Vodnala

If there is one demographic has the power to help the popularity of carp take off exponentially it is college students. “Columbia is basically a college town. If this product becomes a hit with college students, there will be no stopping the demand,” Morgan said. MU has over 35,000 students enrolled currently. Accordingly, Morgan’s team has been trying hard to introduce carp in MU campus dining. There have been three carp tasting tests to date, two involving students and one with MU employees.

“We’re still not sure if we are going to introduce them or not,” Michael Wuest, MU Campus Dining Marketing Manager said. “We’re trying to see if it can fit in with our menus,” he said, adding that “supply issues are a problem for this product. We might have it on some special menus though.”

Morgan acknowledges the supply chain issues. “It’s been a challenge to meet the demand, and to ensure prompt delivery of the fish,” he said. Northern areas of the Mississippi freeze up on a regular basis during winters, rendering fishing impossible, while in summer, the water gets hot enough for the fish to go deeper, making them harder to catch.

The fish being sold in Moser’s comes from Schafer Fisheries in Thomson, Illinois. Schafer’s, a family owned and operated fishery, provides a variety of cuts of silver and bighead carp, which are caught in the Mississippi. 

The boniness of the fish poses a problem to Americans who are not used to eating it. “In China, they are used to eating around the bone and so it is quite popular there,” Morgan said.

Schafer’s finally solved the problem of the bones. Schafer’s “presses the fish meat against a wire mesh, leaving the bones on one side and the meat on the other side,” Morgan said.

These reinvention efforts are paying off slowly. On March 31, Broadway Brewery served carp with tacos, soup and rice.   Response was strong, which led to the restaurant drawing up plans to regularly serve carp starting June 6th, Morgan said. The event will be kicked off with a benefit concert with buffet style food and live music.

Meanwhile, Baucom plans to carry the fish in stores in the future as well, because of the strong sales. “Mark Morgan is the man who made this possible,” he said.

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“We’re going to rock this!” Morgan bellowed into a microphone at Le Bourgeois Wineries in Rocheport. He is there to speak as the guest of the Big Muddy Speaker Series. 

Gathered in a room overlooking the Missouri river on a chilly spring night are over 30 people, a majority of them couples and families. They are here to listen to Morgan, and to eat the carp chili he prepared.

Morgan has just finished explaining why eating carp is necessary for the environment, and how they can beat most fish eaten widely in the Midwest.

Tim Wall, Morgan’s graduate student, is serving the chili. The first few couples trickle tentatively to the food. Then more people come. Soon, the hall is overflowing with people munching on carp. Morgan goes all around the hall, talking to people, explaining the food or just doing small talk.

Karen, Morgan’s wife, is present for the event. “ He keeps experimenting with carp at home all the time,” she said. “But we don’t eat it as often as you might think,” she chuckled shyly.

Morgan, when I met him later at his office, was sitting amidst a pile of papers on his desk. As we talked, we didn’t talk numbers.  The conversation centered on how good the carp tasted with chili. As we talked about how the spice and meat combine in a delicate tangle, a dreamy expression came over his face. “Oh man. What good eating,” he said, “what good eating.”

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