I like to eat fish and I like to cook fish. I’m also a cheerleader for aquaculture as an industry. We have all ordered farm-raised catfish, in one form or another and enjoyed it in a restaurant, or at home with our own special recipe. Unfortunately, on a rare occasion, you may get a catfish filet that may taste a little musty or you may call it “muddy”. This is one of the top challenges of the farm-raised catfish industry and they take it very seriously.
Catfish are taste-tested in food laboratories located at the catfish processing plants. Samples are taken two weeks before harvest, one to two days before harvest, and at delivery to the plant before unloading. If the professional taste testers detect off-flavor, then the harvest is rejected, all so we can enjoy a fantastic golden fried, crunchy, cornmeal covered filet with hushpuppies and coleslaw.
Off-flavor is also a real issue with some pond fish, so let’s not avoid the conversation. Off-flavor compounds are stored in fatty tissues. This can occur in large catfish and large bluegill. The larger and older they are, the more fatty tissue and the more opportunity for them to accumulate off-flavors.
Off-flavors are generally a result of poor water management and the presence of blue-green algae in the system. This is not a true algae, but half algae and half bacteria. It can produce some toxins, but it always produces compounds that are durable and that cause off-flavor in fish. These compounds are in the floating algae and also in the mud. As they increase in concentration, they also find their way into the fatty areas of the fish we like to eat.
Advice to avoid off-flavors? You can manage your water quality and harvesting to avoid off-flavor in most instances.
Manage your water quality with aeration. Adding aeration to circulate and cool the water is a great way to control and reduce the incidence of blue green algae blooms in your pond. It will give a preference for the healthy green phytoplankton to dominate in the system, since they enjoy water circulation, and blue green algae enjoy stagnant water. Avoid over fertilizing. Adding fertilizer to the pond is a standard practice for increasing production, but it needs to be done with visual inspection. If there is already a healthy light green color to the water, wait. Over-fertilizing can push the pond into a favorable condition for blue green algae. Feed high-quality feed rather than the cheapest feed available. Low quality feeds are less digestible and leave a lot of nutrients behind to degrade the water quality.
Lastly, harvest your fish at a younger age, and enjoy eating a great piece of fish that you raised in your own pond!