A quest to catch and cook a Canberra carp

“Wow, this tastes surprisingly good for carp. It’s actually quite nice. Wait – it didn’t come from Lake Burley Griffin did it!?”

Background

Earlier this year I wrote an article describing how to prepare a carp for a meal, based on a method by Keith Bell of K&C Fisheries.  Hey, I was skeptical too, until I went to a carp fishing competition in Boorowa NSW and bite-sized pieces of carp were being offered to anyone brave enough to try.  Soon many of the kids were asking for second, third and fourth helpings.  Even the bashful local farmers forced a wry smile and a “not bad eh”. If you’re not familiar with Keith’s technique, check it out.  There is no flushing the fish in a bath tub for days or drowning the flesh in curry sauce.  But you do need a little care and attention (and respect) for the fish.

As expected the first article generated a lot of feedback.  I think I managed to convert a few people to the idea of eating this much-maligned fish — but to be honest, the response was mixed. Comments ranged from “Yuk!” to “I’d rather eat my rod, reel, tackle box, boat and trailer”.  Another common response was “I wouldn’t eat anything from Lake Burley Griffin”.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, carp are now the dominant freshwater fish in most southern Australian lakes and rivers.  My reason to try and convince others (and myself) to eat them is that perhaps a concerted angling effort in key stretches of a river might be enough to tip the balance back in favour of our native fish. Or at least a meal of carp might save a golden perch or two.  And to be honest, I should really put my money where my mouth is and prepare a carp from scratch.

Lake Burley Griffin carp
Lake Burley Griffin carp

Part 1 – where to fish for a carp

Canberra has always been home.  I love the fact that it’s easy to get around and we are spoiled with freshwater and saltwater fishing options nearby.  Unfortunately carp are everywhere, so there is no shortage of places to try and catch one.   The first part of the quest therefore was just to work out where, because as I found out later, not all carp are created equal.

Lake Burley Griffin

For those that don’t know, Lake Burley Griffin is a man made lake in the middle of Canberra.  It’s sole purpose, apart from looking pretty, is to collect sediment and urban run off before it enters the river systems below.  It’s a great place for a flick after work and very convenient.  It does have has an interesting aroma and funky look to it at times though, especially during blue-green algae outbreaks or when the sewerage treatment plant upstream has another ‘incident’.  Add a few shopping trolleys and lots of reports of swimmers going home with ear infections to the mix and the lake has a pretty bad reputation.

Local artist Michael Ashley (www.mickashley.com.au) produced a great piece, with the simple name “Carp”.  It shows a person sitting in one of those peddle boats from the boat hire shop peddling frantically — presumably he is about to be swallowed whole by a gigantic mutant carp lurking underneath. I think it perfectly captures the feelings Canberrans have for both carp and the lake. But the question I and many others have asked – is it OK to eat fish from Lake Burley Griffin?

 

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“Carp” Thanks to Mick for providing this awesome image for us to use

Heavy metals

The lake and the Molonglo River have a chequered history.  Upstream at Captain’s flat, there is a gold, lead and zinc mine.  One of the retaining dams collapsed in the 1940’s and was blamed for killing all the native fish.  Water with dissolved metals has continued to trickle out of the mine despite its closure in 1962 and remedial works in 1976, although it has slowed.   So what does this mean for water quality in the lake and my plans for a lake carp? A 1992 study led by Maher sampled carp, being the only large fish they caught from Lake Burley Griffin, and found the levels of zinc were extremely low.   The National Capital Authority (NCA) supports their findings here by stating that fish from the lake comply with all relevant food standards.  So according to the powers that be, they are fine to eat.

Maher did however find moderate levels of zinc in the lake’s sediments, vegetation, algae, mosquito fish and invertebrates. So while (mostly) vegetarian fish like carp might come in under the safe benchmarks, these findings raise questions about eating predatory fish, such as redfin, yellowbelly and particularly Murray cod, which would concentrate metals up the food chain.  The study concludes “the presence of zinc in benthic organisms may directly affect the survival of introduced game species (e.g. trout and golden perch) because of ingestion of zinc through the food chain”.  While these ‘game’ fish seem to be surviving OK, well except for trout, but that’s because it’s too hot, I haven’t been able to find any studies on golden perch or cod.  It’s probably another good reason to let them go again – especially the big cod.

Blue-green algae and sewerage

The ‘fragrant’ blue-green algae that is a feature of our lake every year returned again recently.  It is another of my concerns when it comes to eating lake fish. But despite appearances, the health advice suggests that it’s actually fine to eat fish caught during an outbreak, as long as you wash the fish thoroughly in clean water, and dispose of the organs (because that’s where any toxins will accumulate). Anglers should still keep an eye on the advice page from the NCA, as direct contact with water during a blue-green algae outbreak can make you sick.

Another part of the ‘eww’ response when it comes to eating fish from Lake Burley Griffin is the thought of bacterial contamination or sewerage spills. Again, if you wash your fish with clean water and make sure it’s properly cooked, apparently this isn’t a problem. However, Burley Griffin Carp Sashimi is probably not a dish you should be serving your family.

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Dinner time? Lee with a better than average carp from picturesque Lake Burley Griffin

Not all carp are created equal

Not all of the responses to the previous column were negative however.  A few anglers, including fishing identity Rob Paxevanos, lent their support to eating carp and added “carp from a clean clear river are surprisingly good”.  From these slightly braver, open-minded or foolish (depending on your point of view) anglers there was a general feeling that carp caught from flowing rivers smell and taste better than carp from lakes – not having that muddy taste.

So with all the facts collected, semi-digested and spat out like a feeding carp, I’ve made up my mind.  I’m going to catch my ‘eating carp’ from the relatively clean and slowly flowing Murrumbidgee river.  While eating a fish from the lake is apparently OK from the point of view of algae, sewerage and heavy metals, I wouldn’t want to cloud the results with the possibility of a muddy tasting fish simply because it’s been living in a lake – honestly!

Next, Part II – catching and preparing the carp meal

Until then, happy fishing

Graham ‘Grazza’ Fifield

flickandflyjournal.com

Hamish Webb, Dan Firth, Graham Fifield and Lee Georgeson have been fishing the south-east Australian region since 1987. Since then they’ve become avid sportfishermen who are constantly looking for new ways to challenge themselves. They are all scientists and conservationists who are passionate about the long-term sustainability of the ecosystem in which they live. They promote understanding and appreciation of the complex socio-political, economic and environmental issues surrounding fish, fishing and fisheries, while never losing sight of the various motivations that keep them coming back. In English, that means they love all things fishing and have a damn good time on the water, and that’s all that really counts in the end!

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