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A Conversation With: Mark Morgan

March 27, 2014 | 12:00 a.m. CST

MU associate professor Mark Morgan holds his carp catch of the day. He is trying to introduce the fish into Columbia’s restaurants.
Photo courtesy of Mark Morgan

Asian carp are the Midwest’s most infamous invasive species. Big, ugly and ubiquitous in local waterways, the fish are known to leap out of the water and seriously injure boaters if they’re frightened. Efforts are underway to stop the species from spreading, with methods including electrical blockades preventing fish from reaching the Great Lakes, but an MU associate professor offers a creative way to limit the fish’s damage: eat it.

Mark Morgan is a specialist in social aspects with natural resources in MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. He proposes the introduction of Asian carp to Columbia’s food scene. Vox talked to him about his involvement with the project and how the average Columbian can limit the carp invasion by simply eating them at restaurants.

What kinds of fish do you mean when you say Asian carp?
When we say Asian carp we mean two kinds of carp: silver carp and bighead carp. The silver carp are the ones that jump out of the water.

How did Asian carp become such a problem in the Midwest?
We imported these fish back in the 1970s in the United States back to Arkansas with specific purposes in mind, like water cleanup and water purification for sewage lagoons and golf course ponds. The fish eat the small things you can’t see, like phytoplankton and zooplankton, which are microscopic animals. They were under cultivation, so we had them penned up. But then we had floods, and they got out and quickly got into bigger river systems. They’re the most problematic in the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Ohio and the Illinois river systems. The biggest threat is them getting into the Great Lakes and how they might damage a multi-billion dollar fishing industry.

You’re working on integrating Asian carp into more diets. How are you doing this?
We’re working with a couple of Mexican restaurants and a couple of Chinese restaurants. We’re trying to get this food product into their restaurant in a couple of different applications. What we’re looking at is a fish taco, a fish dumpling and even a fish chorizo. I’ve eaten all of these products before, and they’re all great. You could never tell it’s fish.

Have you tested various kinds of preparations?
We use silver carp, and we have documented evidence that silver carp tastes significantly better than catfish, so this is great news for us. Catfish is the Missouri state fish, and there is a great deal of catfish being eaten here on a regular basis. We also did an informal taste test over at SNR (School of Natural Resources) in the fall, and we just told people what it was, fried it up, and it went over very well. The scores went up significantly.

What are the health benefits to eating Asian carp?
They’re low on mercury because they’re midstream feeders; they’re not bottom feeders. But when many Americans think of carp, they think in terms of grass carp or common carp, which are bottom feeders, and so they’re subject to the fleshy, musty flavor. Because it’s a midstream feeder, it’s not subject to toxins and contaminants sitting on the bottom. It’s very low in PCBs and mercury, and it’s high in the good things. It has more omega-3 fatty acids than salmon. It’s a clean white meat that tastes good; it looks good, but we just can’t quite convince people.

Why do you think the public is resisting eating it?
It’s largely a perception problem about the carp. Carp are pretty ugly; they’re not going to win any beauty contests. They’ve got a displaced eye; they’ve got big scales and look like a big goldfish. It just doesn’t look so appealing or appetizing. Americans would call it “rough fish” or trash fish. The second issue is that the carp are very bony, so it’s difficult to filet and practically impossible to cut all the bones away and make it completely boneless.

What other sorts of research do you do related to fishing in Missouri?
I do a lot of fish studies. We have some interesting fishing techniques in Missouri that sometimes can be found in other states, but not all of the time, so I’ve done studies on paddlefish snagging. There’s a six week window in the spring where you can legally fish for paddlefish, so people are out there with rods and reels. We’ve also done studies on fish sucker giggers in the Ozarks. You go out at night in the wintertime; you’ve got lights on the boat with a long stick and a prong, and you poke the fish. Then you have a fish fry at the end. It’s such a great experience.

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