In 2015, Mark Morgan, an associate professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia’s School of Natural Resources, made rounds of various international restaurants in Missouri, carrying fish packets. Silver carp, to be precise.
He took some boneless ground meat to a local Mexican restaurant and asked if they could do something with it. They made some nachos and tacos. A Chinese restaurant he approached was happy to use it in their cooking. At the University of Missouri, they cooked him a delicacy. With each person accepting to cook the fish, Morgan was solidifying an idea.
As an ecologist, he was looking to solve a problem—the invasion of silver carp in the freshwaters of the United States.
Carps were brought into the US from China as biological control but escaped captivity and became prolific breeders, establishing themselves as an invasive species. Today, the Illinois River has the highest concentration of silver carp on the planet. They are a threat to the native species there. They are also a threat to the Great Lakes.
The US has focused a lot of attention and billions of dollars on preventing the carp from entering the Great Lakes. There have also been some efforts to eradicate them using chemical controls.
Morgan was considering solving the same problem but with a different idea. “Maybe we could eat the carp, I thought,” said Morgan at a session at the 6th International EcoSummit in Gold Coast, Australia, held in June to discuss adapting to a changing land and seascape.
But, there was a cultural problem with Morgan’s idea. The silver carp in the United States is considered harmful.
“Our pet name for the carp is ‘trash fish,’” Morgan said. “Oftentimes, we just put it in a landfill. It’s bony; it’s difficult to fillet; there are many reasons why people don’t like the fish. It’s cultural.”
After getting various people to cook carp, Morgan was convinced several countries consider carp a delicacy.
He moved from the preparation level at the restaurant to salting and smoking the fish. “Our first project was in Haiti, and they just loved it,” he recounted.
Next, he focused on using the fish in powdered form. He said it offers numerous benefits, including 87% protein and vast amounts of micro and macronutrients. Fish also has essential fatty acids, vitamins (B12, B6, D, A) and minerals like iron, zinc, calcium, and iodine.
Fish could be used to address undernourishment in developing countries. If the fish is an invasive species in the source country, the source and destination countries benefit from this arrangement.
US-supplied carp are all captured in the wild since aquaculture of any carp in the US is illegal.
“We can easily catch 5,000 to 7,000 pounds of wild carp fish in three hours. So we are talking about the largest possible supply of carp. And, this arrangement has fewer biodiversity impacts, smaller carbon footprints, and provides nutrition,” said Morgan.
In Nigeria, Morgan’s team plans to use carp powder to fortify an existing food product called Tom Brown, a porridge made of powdered yellow corn, millets, sorghum, soybean, and groundnuts. Tom Brown uses groundnuts for protein. “I told people in Nigeria that peanuts are about 22% protein; carp is 87% protein,” recounted Morgan.
With 220 million people, Nigeria has the highest population of all African countries. Women and children are especially at risk of undernutrition. Nigeria leads in Under-five deaths at 844,000 and has a high percentage of children who are stunted (37%), underweight (22%), or wasted (7%).
Currently, his team is working on the feasibility of this project. A taste test is scheduled this summer in Nigeria, Morgan said. “We will compare the taste of our product with existing products. Working out the cost is important as well.”
Worldfish, a nonprofit research and innovation institution promoting aquatic foods for nutrition, has successfully tried a similar project using dry fish powder in Bangladesh. They recently partnered with the state government of Odisha on a pilot project to include fish powder in meals provided to children, adolescent girls and pregnant women at Anganwadis in the Mayurbhanj district. These projects used small whole fish, which are dried, powdered, and mixed in curries.
Morgan said his project offers a difference: “We are using an invasive species. We are trying to address one problem and another problem at the same time.”
This story was supported by Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in The Wire on July 19, 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner Image: Carp is an invasive species in the US / Credit: Cloudtail the Snow Leopard via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).