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Do Asian carp burgers sound gross to you? This politician wants you to eat them

Josina Morita, a commissioner with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, says Chicagoans should embrace the taste of the invasive fish species that threatens Illinois’ waterways — and she is giving out samples for free.

Josina Morita, a commissioner with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, is sponsoring carp burger and carp taco giveaways around the city and in Evanston.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“I’ll have an Asian carp burger” is not a phrase often heard around Chicago, but a local politician would like to change that.

At least over the next couple of weekends.

Josina Morita, a commissioner with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, is sponsoring carp burger and carp taco giveaways around the city and in Evanston this weekend and next, to raise awareness of the invasive fish’s threat to Illinois rivers and potentially Lake Michigan.

Morita wants to convince Chicagoans to eat the fish to help reduce the population of a species that has upended local ecosystems in Illinois for decades. Asian carp, who are voracious eaters themselves and can weigh up to 100 pounds, threaten to starve native fish species. To date, no Asian carp have been found in the Chicago River, though genetic material related to the fish was discovered in Bubbly Creek on the Southwest Side last year. The fear is that the carp will make their way to Lake Michigan.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources, an agency that’s been battling the Asian carp invasion since at least the 1980s, is donating 1,000 pounds of the fish from downstate for the promotion. Morita is hoping the event may convince some restaurants to offer the carp, which she describes as a mild-tasting whitefish. Proponents of eating Asian carp insist it’s different from the bottom-feeding common carp that can taste foul.

“It’s a heartier flavor than a lot of fish,” Morita says, adding that the carp also are nutritious with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

Morita stresses a sustainability angle of marketing a nuisance as food. “People are looking for something positive to do,” Morita said.

Because of the bone structure, it’s difficult to filet the fish, Morita said. So the easiest way to offer it as food is to grind it like hamburger.

That’s how Dirk Fucik, owner of Dirk’s Fish and Gourmet Shop in Lincoln Park, sells Asian carp.

Fucik, who will host one of the fish burger giveaways, started selling Asian carp about a decade ago. He said he started offering the fish because of the conservation benefits. He also tries to sell customers on the taste and the value (about $6 a pound).

Guess what?

“It’s not super popular,” Fucik said.

Dirk Fucik prepares an Asian carp burger at Dirk’s Fish and Gourmet Shop at 2070 N. Clybourn Ave. on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

He said he may sell 10 to 15 pounds in a weekend, which is a lot less than the 150 pounds of salmon he’ll sell on a single Saturday.

Kevin Irons, aquatic nuisance species program manager for Illinois DNR, said convincing consumers to eat the carp can be beneficial, though engineering solutions such as fencing are the most effective means to address the problem. One such project for the Des Plaines River near Joliet is hung up over funding.

Asian carp were exported to the U.S. around the 1970s to help catfish farmers in the South, Irons said. The fish cleaned water for the farms by eating algae. But eventually the carp escaped up the Mississippi River and made their way to Illinois. Their density in some areas, such as the Illinois River, has resulted in declining populations and smaller native fish, Irons said.

Illinois DNR promotes the fish for food and is even close to announcing a new name to shed the taint of the carp reputation, Irons said.

“Carp is that four-letter word,” Irons said.

Illinois wouldn’t be the first to rebrand. A Louisiana chef promoted the name silverfin in recent years. Morita said she’d rather keep the carp name and push the sustainability angle.

“I’m not as much of a fan of renaming it,” she said. “Asian carp is Asian carp.”

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.