Carp, It's What's For Dinner

Tim Adams' crew works to bring in a big haul. (Courtesy Tim Adams)

Trash fish to Americans the No. 1 source of protein in world

Most Americans consider them trash fish, but carp and similar rough fish have a big market in the U.S. and overseas.

They are called “Bottom Feeders,” also the name of Outdoor Channel’s new reality show. It follows three teams of commercial fisherman working U.S. rivers and lakes whose catches are shipped around the globe.

“Carp is like the No. 1 source of protein in the world,” said Wabasha, Minn., commercial fisherman Tim Adams, one of the show’s subjects. “It’s just another fish.”

Adams is among the 100 suppliers to Schafer Fisheries, where each year about 30 million pounds of bottom feeders go through the company’s processing plants. Schafer is the Midwest’s largest processor and wholesale/retail distributor of fresh fish and frozen seafood.

Most of the fish are sent out to major U.S. cities with ethnic populations, Eastern Europe and Asia, Schafer sales manager Steven McNitt said.

>“If it wasn’t for the ethnic people, we probably couldn’t market carp in the U.S.,” he said. “The big reason most Americans don’t eat it is they don’t want to want deal with the bones.”

Carp have an abundance of intramuscular bones within the meat. There are some restaurants that score the fish and deep fry it, which eliminates the bones. But McNitt said that only works on smaller fish.

“Carp has kind of lost its favor in U.S. markets, and most have turned to buffalo,” McNitt said. “It’s a whiter meat.”

Buffalo is one of the main species Adams nets in the Mississippi River and the region’s lakes. On a recent big haul, Adams estimated his team netted about 100,000 pounds of buffalo, 30,000 pounds of carp and 70,000 pounds of white carp.

Adams has a team of workers who sort the fish, throwing back the sportfish as quickly as possible.

“No commercial fisherman is going to kill a gamefish,” McNitt said. “If they got caught with one, they’d put them out of business. They return them healthy to the water.”

Sometimes state game and fish departments have asked commercial fisherman to rid a certain body of water from an overpopulation of bottom feeders. Removing them allows grass to grow and helps maintain a healthier fishery for the sport fish.

And since the nets can’t capture every fish in the water, the quick-growing fish population comes back.

Other times, commercial fisherman pay for a permit to work a body of water. The variety of species Schafer accepts runs the gamut of carp species, and each of the various bottom feeder species bring a different price.

“We pay different values on every fish,” McNitt said. “Catfish are probably the best paying Tim can take … cheapest would be the carp. Sheepshead and buffalo are two species to try to catch because they are worth more.”

McNitt said carp start at around 15 cents a pound. The company then has overhead in processing, flash freezing and shipping.

“I got probably 50 cents in that fish before its ready to ship,” he said. “It’s 65 to 70 cents to deliver overseas and still see some profit. In the U.S., all these fish go to Asian people and it’s the preferred fish for most people from the Eastern Bloc Russian countries.”

Common yellow carp is a food staple in Europe. Anglers there have targeted them for years and there’s a major carp fishing tournament scene, an extensive of which is now increasing in America.

In the U.S., Schafer sells 12,000 to 15,000 pounds of carp each week, McNitt said, but that rises dramatically around the holidays.

“Christmas time carp is really, really in demand because Polish people following tradition eat it,” McNitt said. “My demand probably triples during the holiday. The Pols buy 300,000 pounds of carp in December and most of that goes to Chicago and Detroit.”

>Schafter also processes the fish into a variety of products. Besides filets and steaks, they make hot dogs, salami, jerky, gifelte fish, smoke it, “whatever the customer wants.”

A decade ago, Schafer began making plant fertilizer from fish offal, SF Organics. In addition to reducing the production facility’s waste product, SF Organics is 100 percent environmentally friendly.

Adams also manages the plant for Schafer, processing fish to fill orders. McNitt said he was a good choice for the show.

“Tim’s a really good guy, interested in what he does and knowledgeable,” he said. “I’ve always thought they could do a show on (commercial fishing). It’s an interesting life.”

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