Asian carp are heading home, 40,000 pounds at a time.
While others work feverishly to block the invasive species from getting into the Great Lakes, an Illinois fish processor has signed a contract to ship Asian carp to China.
The Big River Fish Corporation of Pike County, Ill., recently secured a $2 million grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to expand its operations and export the fish back to China, where it’s considered a delicacy. The plan is among a growing number of business initiatives in Illinois that look to create a market for the fish.
The journey represents a round trip of sorts for the fish, which were first imported from Asia in the 1970s to clean algae from southern catfish farms and sewage lagoons, but eventually escaped to local rivers and now threatens to colonize the Great Lakes.
After invading large stretches of the Mississippi River, and moving north up the Illinois River, now the fast-reproducing fish is on the threshold of the Great Lakes, the planet’s largest supply of fresh water, and home to a $7 billion sportfish industry that could be wiped out by the invasive species.
That possibility has led other Great Lakes states to sue Illinois to force faster and more aggressive carp-blocking efforts, as U.S. legislators introduce bills to take similar action, and the White House appointed a “carp czar” to oversee federal control efforts.
But the carp are a business opportunity at Big River Fish, which processes a wide range of fresh and dried fish. The company has signed a contract with Beijing Zhuochen Animal Husbandry Co., Ltd., to ship 30 million pounds of the fish to China.
Big River Fish, which relies on more than 90 commercial fishermen to ensure supplies with fresh catch, says it’s the country’s largest purchaser of Asian carp, able to ship 40,000-pound containers of fresh frozen carp at a time.
The Chinese are also excited by the promise of river-raised fish, said Ross Harano, Big River Fish’s director of international marketing.
“The only way this works is for us to be able to sell it as a ‘black Angus beef, wild Mississippi river fish that has so much energy it dances off the water,'” Harano told The State Journal-Register of Springfield, Ill. The silver variety of Asian carp is known for jumping out of the water at the sound of boat engines.
When a Beijing Zhuochen Animal Husbandry Co. representative visited Big River Fish earlier this year, he was served fresh-cooked Asian carp and signed a memo of understanding on the spot, Harano told the newspaper. He returned last July with the head of the company to sign the official contract, as Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn looked on.
Big River Fish plans to use the $2 million grant and $1.5 million of its own finding to move into a larger facility, and hopes to employ up to 61 people in its Asian carp exporting business.
Fifty miles downstream, in Grafton, Ill., a group of local businessmen plans to build a fish processing plant of its own to cater to the U.S. market. The group— Grafton Summit Enterprises—has enlisted the aid of celebrity chef Philippe Parola to help market the fish in the U.S. Parola used the Oct. 26 dedication ceremony of a new Mississippi River education center to show some simple recipes for Asian carp.
“China wants 30 million pounds per year of only our Asian carp bighead species to sell to two percent of their millionaires and rich people because they don’t want to eat their own polluted fish,” Parola told The Telegraph of Alton, Ill. “Yet, we are bringing in hundreds of millions of pounds of dirty fish from China and Vietnam. I say, ‘Put America to work.’”
Parola also highlighted the health benefits of Asian carp compared to other freshwater fish, saying that the carp have little or no mercury.
Grafton businessman Oliver Ready, owner of a Grafton fish market and a member of Grafton Summit Enterprises, told The Telegraph that the group’s fish processing plant would employ 60 people and put 10 more boats on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.
“Now, we have to raise the funding,” he said.