Before the well-known and respected Wasatch Community Gardens, which offers opportunities for people to learn about urban agriculture, there was Wasatch Fish and Gardens. For many of its founders—Patrick Poulin, Danny Potts, Nick Hershenow —the early-1980s project was inspired by their time in the Peace Corps, in places like Ecuador and Mali. The idea was service, to the community at large, but also and most importantly to Salt Lake’s refugees. Food was the key. There were gardens, just like today, but there was also fish.
The organization got its start at the Crossroads Urban Center and in the backyards of Vietnamese, Hmong and Cambodian refugees. To Patrick Poulin, the idea seemed simple. Set up some tanks, even simple wading pools, stock them with talapia, create an endless supply of inexpensive, culturally familiar, nutritious food. The state of Utah, however, wasn’t impressed.
“They were worried about an invasive fish species accidentally escaping into the waterways,” recalls Poulin, now executive director of the International Refugee Committee in Salt Lake. “I was told, basically, that if I had talapia shipped to Utah they would be waiting at the airport to arrest me.”
The project stalled until a new member, Danny Potts, fresh out of a graduate program in ichthyology with experience designing and constructing aquaculture systems and working at fresh water fisheries, latched on to the group’s idea. He knew there was already an invasive fish ruining Utah’s waters, one that could feed thousands and that the government would be happy to see go. Potts steered the group towards carp.
They began sourcing fish from Utah Lake, buying from fifth-generation commercial fisherman Bill Loy, Jr. They also seined for carp in freshwater ponds on the property of the Ruby Duck Club along the margins of the Great Salt Lake, using 200-foot nets and hauling in sometimes 2,000 pounds of fish in a single cast.
In 1987, Wasatch Fish Gardens earned 501(c)3 status and Patrick Poulin became the first director.
The fish program was in high demand. Its manager, Sengtek Tan, an elderly Cambodian who had been a fruit farmer in his native land, proved a valuable link between the new program and the refugee community. And, at 10 cents a pound on the market, carp was affordable food, with no worry about demand out stripping supply.
Demand for carp was still strong in 1992 when Erik Kingston stepped in as director. “At some point, I heard, we had 1,000 people signed up for the fish co-op,” Kingston recalls. “Four days a week, 15 to 30 people would gather at the back of our truck and point to the live carp they wanted in the tank. We would dip it out for them and hand it over live or smack it over the head with a pipe, depending on how they wanted it.”
But the fish operation was time- intensive, and other things were falling through the cracks. Code enforcement notices from the city threatened to shut down gardens because of unsightly weed problems in half-neglected community garden plots. The IRS was sending letters about misfiled forms and threatening to drain the group’s account. There was irrigation that needed installing and garden programs that needed to be run.
Kingston finally asked a board member to draw up an economic analysis of the fish program. He was not impressed by the report he received. “The carp was costing us about $2.25 a pound,” he recalls. “If our idea was self-reliance, I figured we would be doing just as well giving out food vouchers for store-bought meat.”
The final blow to the fish program came in the form of tragedy. Sengtek was involved in a car accident and died from complications within the next year. The heart and soul of the program died with him. Kingston took it as a sign. He and the board cut the fish program and focused on gardening. That same year they started a new track with the youth gardening program.
Potts, though still very active with Wasatch Community Gardens, believes the Garden’s fisheries program was on the verge of being self-sufficient and fell through the cracks because of what he calls a lack of vision. Potts frequently fishes Utah Lake and describes the carp he catches as “oily and tender, like large trout.”
Today, Utah Lake is overflowing with carp. Introduced to Utah Lake in 1883 through a U.S. Bureau of Fisheries stocking program, by 1901 Utah Fish and Wildlife was already concerned about carp-caused declines of trout populations in the lake. Currently, an estimated 6.9 million adult carp live in the Utah Lake. Collectively, they weigh in at around 40 million pounds and make up about 90% of the lake’s biomass.
In 2009, the Department of Natural Resources began an initiative to save the endangered June sucker, a native fish found only in Utah Lake and one of 14 native fish species still found in its waters. To save the sucker, five million pounds of carp need to be pulled from the lake each year.
What are the prospects of a fish co-op comeback?
According to Poulin, getting another fish co-op going might not be such a tough sell. “Right now Salt Lake has about 30,000 refugees. Many of them are Burmese and African. Their diets have a lot of fish,” he says. But Poulin won’t act on his own.
“The real question is about engagement. If there is interest from the refugees, we might be able to facilitate that,” he says.
Gefilte fish, anyone?
Two different kinds of carp reportedly live in Utah Lake. On rare occasions, fishermen have caught mirror carp, a beautiful fish commonly found in Europe with a mutation that causes its scales to grow in an irregular and patchy pattern with the larger scales resembling mirrors. But the lake’s biggest numbers by far are Common carp (Cyprinus carpio). These large, greenish-yellow colored freshwater fish, found on the list of the world’s 100 worst invasive species, are originally from Asia but now are found worldwide.
In Utah, common carp are found in more than just Utah Lake. They are present as far south as Lake Powell and as far north as Willard Bay. They are even in the Provo and Jordan Rivers.
There is no limit on catching carp, but you do need a Utah fishing license. Carp will eat just about anything. Experienced anglers like to use worms, bread, even hot dogs. And take care to hold onto your pole, or these heavy fish will whisk it over board.
One reason carp have made it around the world is because of human hands, and people wouldn’t have brought carp along if they weren’t pretty good to eat. In the Jewish culinary tradition, for example, carp is a common ingredient in gefilte fish. The internet is a great supplier of carp gefilte fish recipes that use pretty basic kitchen ingredients such as onion, eggs, horseradish and carrots.
But there are many ways to prepare carp. The Utah Lake government website recently posted a simple carp chowder recipe—fish, corn, potatoes, bacon and the like. http://utahlake.gov/dont-knock-it-till-you-try-it-utah-lake-carp-chowder
Danny Potts, of the former Wasatch Fish and Gardens, still prefers to eat his carp simply. Because of their big bones, he fillets his fish then grills them with a squeeze of lemon juice.
Mystery of the PCBs
PCBs have not been found in the waters of Utah Lake, even though the carp carry the toxic contaminant.
Commercial fishing enterprises like Bill Loy, Jr.’s family business are making a dent in the DNR’s goal to decrease Utah Lake’s carp population by around one million fish annually. Loy is still catching and selling carp on the lake for a mere 20 cents per pound, but since a state report in 2006 issued an advisory after moderate levels of PCBs were found in carp from Utah Lake, fewer people seem interested in eating the fish. Since then, most of his catch has been turned into compost at a greenwaste site in Elberta, Utah, near Santaquin.
Michael Mills, fish biologist for the Central Utah Water Conservancy District says that in moderate amounts, about eight ounces per month, carp from Utah Lake is still safe to eat.
The mystery is that, while PCBs have been found in the fish, they have not been found in the lake itself. A pollution source has not been identified, either, according to the Utah Division of Water Quality.
PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), banned since 1977, are toxic chemicals once used in electrical transformers. Since then, the greatest risk of exposure to these toxins is through eating contaminated fish. PCBs do not readily break down but will bioaccumulate and/or be dispersed.
Traditional methods of removing PCBs from water require treating water off-site with an intensive and expensive filtration process. But some newer alternatives are being developed, including mycoremediation: extraction of harmful chemicals and bacteria with certain mushrooms. Research over the past 20 years shows that white-rot fungus can break down PCBs, rendering them harmless. A project in the Dungeness watershed in Washington State is using mycoremediation for the removal of fecal coliformbacteria. However, mycoremediation still requires moving every cubic inch of water through bioretention cells, holding tanks where the water comes into contact with the filtering mycelium.
One theory for the presence of PCBs in the fish is that the toxins have settled into the lake’s sediment which the carp, as bottom-feeders, would have ingested.
Mills says the state has had the compost itself tested for PCBs, with no detectable findings. (This could be due to mycorrhisal activity at the compost site.)
Loy does sell fish for consumption. He agrees with Mills that the carp are safe to eat and says he considers them safer than eating tuna fish.
If you are preparing fish that may have come from PCB-contaminated waters, follow this advice (courtesy, State of Oregon):
• Throw away internal organs, skin, head and tail.
• Remove all skin.
• Cut away the dark fat on top of fish along its backbone.
• Slice off fat belly meat along the bottom of fish.
• Cut away the dark, V-shaped wedge of fat located along the lateral line on each side of the fish.
• Do not eat the raw fish.
• Bake or broil skinned, trimmed fish on a rack or grill so fat drips off & discard drippings.