I have received a lot of mail recently asking me about the many varieties of Atlantic coast fish that vacationing Minnesotans have been seeing on menus for the first time. Even the maligned bluefish seems to be getting its star turn. New and different fish are being cooked all over the country, especially on the East Coast, utilizing oddball species that have never really been of much interest here in America. Blood cockles, spiny dogfish, tautog, carp, and sea robins all grace hometown seafood restaurant menus from Maine to the Carolinas.
You see the same thing in Houston, where my pal PJ Stoops has made a career out of selling the by-catch from the Gulf’s larger fishing vessels to local chef-owned restaurants. And he’s not alone. In fact, some of the best chefs in the country are making a big deal out of featuring both invasive species and the sadly mischaracterized “trash fish” on their menus. There is tremendous community benefit to becoming a sustainable eater. In our fisheries, deep cuts have taken place, limiting the numbers of the species that have been recklessly overfished. Back east, even cod, the state fish of Massachusetts, is less available these days and therefore more expensive. Gulf of Maine cod fisheries alone are paring down cod hauls in some cases more than 70 percent. Closer to home, we find a different story. Bighead, silver, and several other carp species are multiplying faster than we can hunt them recreationally. They are now in the Mississippi and in our Great Lakes, imported from China in the ’70s as a way to improve water quality in Midwestern ponds because they voraciously devour plankton. The problem arose when floods washed them into the Mississippi. These carp have no predator fish to devour them, they eat the food that supports other native species, and they destroy larval habitat. Here in Minnesota I see lots of education and efforts to raise awareness with control efforts and field surveys, but I think we need to do more. The good news is that there is a Chinese processing plant being built where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers meet in Kentucky, and its goal is to process and freeze the fish, shipping it back to Asia to meet high demand for human consumption. Here’s a more radical idea: I say eat it here.
According to a recent report from the USDA, the number of Minnesotans suffering from food insecurity, or not having access to enough food, is at a 20-year high. The report says 10 percent of Minnesota households don’t have enough access to food. I have eaten many species of carp that are just awful-tasting, but silvers and bigheads I took from the Mississippi a few months ago in Missouri were delicious, firm white, and sweet. A perfect eating fish. Local processing should be encouraged here in our state, and restrictions should be eased, allowing fishermen to donate edible species to the communities that need them most.
But the tide won’t turn until there is demand from the consumer. Mississippi River commercial fishing is almost non-existent because consumer demand for carp and other non-game species has declined over the last 40 years after research showed that many fatty river fish carried contaminants such as mercury and PCBs, making them unfit for consumption. Our state waterways are cleaner than they have been for generations, and it’s time to reengage on the issue of how we feed ourselves from our local waterways. Consuming even a small percentage of fish from local rivers and lakes would ease pressure on other overstressed food systems, disengage our overreliance on factory farms, and aid in decentralizing our food system.
The model is already in place. Go check out our Asian markets like Dragon Star Oriental Foods in St. Paul. Head to the fish counter and grab some carp or other local fish from the Mississippi. It probably came from a small-time commercial fisherman who works the river pulling carp, buffalo, sheepshead, suckers, and catfish for the growing ethnic communities in the Twin Cities. Consider it the last bottle of Coke in the desert.
I am not asking anyone to eat something unhealthy or unpalatable. These fish taste good, and local chefs could do more to work with native and invasive species, but they need customer buy-in, literally. It’s working out east, and it can work here. Cultural, economic, and environmental sustainability is of paramount importance, and so is feeding our most vulnerable populations in schools, senior centers, hospitals, and jails. So many Minnesotans live with food insecurity, but I think because of the stigma associated with the issue many go hungry and don’t ask for help. Giving someone a fish would help. Reminding a culture how we should be fishing would help do so much more.