Negative Image Aside, Asian Carp Are a Boon
By David Lepeska
When federal and state environmental regulators spent a few days at Lake Calumet in Chicago earlier this month fishing for Asian carp with stun guns and half-mile-wide nets, their hunt seemed to underscore the carp’s status as the Midwest’s ecological enemy No. 1.
The subject of endless debate over the best control strategies, Asian carp, an invasive species, have earned a place of dread in local lore. None, however, were found in the Lake Calumet search, and some scientists say the ecological concerns may be overblown.
For many people, Asian carp are proving more boon than bane. Bolstered by government support, the Asian carp harvest has leapt thirtyfold in the past decade, creating a new industry, attracting fishermen and entrepreneurs, and feeding people all over the world.
“We’ve been ramping up for years,” said Mike Schafer, owner of Schafer Fisheries.
In 2010, the company sold some 20 million pounds of Asian carp to clients as far-flung as Turkey and Indonesia, up from two million pounds in 2006. “We’re out in front,” Mr. Schafer said, “and it’s going to get bigger.”
In the last year, Illinois has handed out nearly $6 million to increase the catch of Asian carp in the Illinois River, including a $2 million grant to the Big River Fish Corporation, of downstate Pearl, to expand operations and ship up to 50 million pounds a year to China.
A separate $3 million state program aims to further increase the harvest of bighead and silver carp, the two Asian carp species that have infested the Mississippi, Illinois and Ohio Rivers and are nearing the Great Lakes. Both species reproduce quickly, gorge on plankton, a key food for native American fishes, and grow up to 100 pounds.
Kirby Marsden, former president of the Illinois Commercial Fishermen’s Association and a part-time consultant for Big River Fish, estimates that the carp harvest, less than half a million pounds in 2000, could grow to an annual catch of 100 million pounds that creates up to 200 new jobs in the next few years.
“It’s a chance to get rid of this invasive fish, boost the local economy and increase employment in this area,” Mr. Marsden said.
Imported in the 1970’s by fish farmers and government agencies to keep Southern fish ponds clean, bighead and silver carp escaped their enclosures during flooding and migrated to the Mississippi River, then on to the Illinois and Ohio River basins.
Though they now represent 8 out of every 10 fish in some stretches of the Illinois River, said Greg Sass, director of the Illinois River Biological Survey at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, scientific research has yet to establish a direct connection between the Asian carp proliferation and the decline of any native species.
While scientists debate whether Asian carp could spawn in the Great Lakes and imperil the lakes’ $7 billion fishing industries, environmental groups and politicians from six states have called for re-separating Chicago area waterways from the Mississippi River.
The Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee, a task force of more than 20 state, federal and regional officials, is exploring a less drastic measure: increasing the harvest on the Illinois River in sufficient quantities to slow the carp’s advance toward Lake Michigan.
“It’s no panacea,” said Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “But in the short run it makes sense. Getting those fish out of the water reduces that northward pressure on Lake Michigan and buys us some time to come up with a permanent solution.”
Jim Garvey, director of the Fisheries and Illinois Aquaculture Center at Southern Illinois University, runs the $3 million state program to increase the carp harvest and develop commercial markets. He says Asian carp, though a hard sell for human appetites in the United States, are among the most widely consumed fish in the world, with China the biggest market.
“It would be silly for our country to have us spend taxpayer dollars to eradicate these things and throw them in a landfill,” Mr. Garvey said. “We might as well make some money out of them.”
Orion Briney, a third-generation Illinois River fisherman, agrees. While Mr. Briney hauls in up to 20,000 pounds of Asian carp six days a week, the fish industry has shrunk from a few decades ago, when hundreds of commercial fishermen fished the Illinois. Today, maybe a couple dozen fishermen work full-time.
Mr. Garvey and his team are hoping to double that number with a pilot program set to begin next month. After as many as 25 fishermen are trained to properly catch and handle Asian carp, the state will pay cash awards to those who haul in a certain amount.
A few hundred yards from the Mississippi River, in Thomson, Ill., Schafer Fisheries had dealt solely in catfish for most of its 55 years. Now, Asian carp represent 80 percent of the company’s business, Mr. Schafer said.
Schafer ships frozen, filleted, and minced carp mostly to international markets and Asian communities in the United States. It also offers Asian carp jerky, hot dogs and bouillabaisse, and converts waste material into liquid organic fertilizer.
One of Mr. Schafer’s main competitors, Stoller Fisheries of Spirit Lake, Iowa, ships about two million pounds of Asian carp each year. The owner, Larry Stoller, says he hopes to increase that number by half next year.
Inland Processing, a start-up in Grafton, Ill., is pitching the state and investors on plans for a plant to process up to 15 million pounds of Asian carp a year.
Big River Fish, meanwhile, is using its state grant to build an 80,000-square-foot plant to open this fall and increase its processing capacity to 2.5 million pounds a month by 2013 from the current 180,000 pounds a month.
Competitors have questioned the state award to Big River Fish because the company’s director of international marketing, Ross Harano, was state director of trade from 2003 to 2005. A state official said Mr. Harano’s background with the state did not influence the grant decision.
Select Logistics Network of Clinton, Ill., recently won its own state contract: $1 million to remove about three million pounds of Asian carp from the Illinois River and process it into fish meal. Heartland Processing, a start-up in Havana, Ill., is looking to turn carp waste into Omega 3-rich fish oil.
Demand and processing capacity are growing so fast that the Asian carp industry may be working toward its own demise. A state-backed study, to be published at year’s end, should reveal whether the increased harvest is reducing carp numbers.
“We want to crash the population,” said Kevin Irons, aquaculture and aquatic nuisance manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “We’re not trying to find a sustainable yield.”
--- ran in the Aug 12, 2011, NY Times, in partnership with the Chicago News Cooperative.