When the French explorer Père Marquette traveled down the Illinois River in 1673, his journal tells of encounters with “monstrous fish” so large they nearly overturned his canoe.
In all likelihood the fish Marquette was talking about were channel catfish, but nearly 340 years later fisherman Josh Havens says it’s bighead carp... and silver carp which now harass boaters on the Illinois (silver carp are the jumpers).
“Oh everybody hates ‘em,” says Havens, “except for people that shoot ‘em and stuff like that. I hate ‘em when I’m trying to tube with my kids, but then when we’re trying to shoot ‘em I like them. So it’s a love-hate thing.”
Bow-fishing for jumping carp is fun, but the sheer volume of carp is crowding out native fish, so much in fact that in parts of the river 8 out of every 10 fish is an Asian carp.
A fact which some Illinois officials believe could be an asset. As the nation’s civic leaders search for a permanent solution to keep invasive Asian carp from spreading, other parts of the country are betting on the carp’s future. Across the Mississippi Valley, fishermen and exporters are teaming up to develop the market for carp, and carp products.
“We should be thinking about these invasive species as opportunities for us to focus on economic development,” says Marc Miller, Director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Miller spoke to residents in the tiny river town of Grafton, Illinois. He’s bullish on carp in part because of companies like Grafton’s American Heartland Fish Products.
“I mean who else can take lemons and turn them into lemonade, like providing an opportunity for 39 jobs here in this community, that’s what we’re doing with the Asian carp,” says Miller.
Miller and other Illinois state officials claim that selling carp might be the best method for checking their expansion.
Earlier this summer, a group of Chinese investors announced a partnership with American Heartland Fish to ship 35 million pounds of carp to China over the next three years.
The Illinois Department of Commerce kicked in $2 million to help build the processing plant…a down payment which Grafton Mayor Tom Thompson says is money well spent.
“It’s going to produce jobs, it’s going to revive our local fishing industry and it’s a very important catalyst in trying to solve the environmental problem of carp in the river,” says Thompson.
Carp are considered too bony for American tastes. But they’re wildly popular in China, where pollution has made many fish unsafe to eat. The fish caught here are sold as “upper Mississippi wild-caught” carp, with “so much energy they can jump.”
Still others say the Chinese market is a long shot to solve America’s invasive carp problem.
“These guys, I hear all kinds of things about investors, they’re going to have all these multi-million dollar deals with China…and they don’t materialize I’m telling you,” says Steve McNitt, Sales Manager for Schafer Fish in Northwest Illinois.
He says they’ve shipped millions of pounds of carp to China, but the margins are just too slim.
“I bet we’ve had 30 or 40 Chinese customers come through here and they’re going to buy every fish we can produce and everything,” says McNitt, “…and they would if you give them to ‘em, but they’re not going to allow you to make any money.”
Fishermen are paid about 15 cents a pound for Asian carp, and many ecologists warn that building an industry based on an invasive species might only further establish the carp in American rivers.
But Ben Allen of American Heartland fish says he expects to not only control the population of carp, but ultimately beat it back.
“We want to move these fish out of the river,” says Allen. “And we’re going to attract people that have large boats and want to go out and work hard and bring in a lot of weight.”
In addition to selling the carp as food, Allen says new rendering patents will also allow his company to tap into the booming markets for fishmeal, used in animal feed and Omega-3 fish oil.
Follow Adam Allington on Twitter: @aallington