Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., July 19, 20 or 21
Illinois might be caught between a rock and a carp place.
Commercial fishermen are the key to successful Asian carp removal, a new study shows, but businesses need to take a leadership role in developing markets for the fish, and government should be a partner in developing the fishing industry. If not: bad news.
Government officials last week offered free Asian carp samples at the Taste of Chicago, but it’s going to take more than five days’ freebies to make a difference.
Asian carp infest the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, the latter connected to Lake Michigan by a network including a canal outside Chicago. Bighead carp and silver carp (which can grow to 100 pounds and leap into the air) invaded Midwestern rivers more than a decade ago. The foreign fish breed so fast and grow so large they drive out native fish. Populations of Asian carp are dense in the lower and middle Illinois River and approaching the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS) and the electrical barrier set up there to stop them from entering the Great Lakes. The Army Corps of Engineers says the barrier is working, but Asian carp DNA was detected in samples gathered in June.
“Fishing is the only feasible and effective control mechanism in the Illinois River,” says Jim Garvey, a zoology professor at Southern Illinois University/Carbondale, which did an 18-month study, “Fishing down the Bighead and Silver Carps: Reducing the Risk of Invasion to the Great Lakes.”
Meanwhile, five states are suing the federal government to speed up a more effective barrier, maybe even closing the link between the Illinois River and Lake Michigan.
The Illinois River contains more than 2 tons of Asian carp per mile in its main channel, the research team found – more than 60 percent of all fish biomass.
The report suggests that eating the tasty, healthy, high-protein (if bony) fish is a plausible approach to reducing its numbers. However, the study says, “There likely are too few Asian carp in the Illinois River to encourage a long-term market, but likely too many for public-sponsored control by agencies to be cost-effective and maintainable.”
High in protein and low in contaminants compared to most commercially important fish, Asian carp are already popular with Chinese consumers.
“The primary factor inhibiting development of value-added products from Asian carp and native fishes is a lack of infrastructure in the region, not public perception,” according to a 2011 Asian Carp Marketing Summit. However, two Midwest businessmen disagree somewhat.
Tim Leeds, a partner in Heartland Processing, with offices in Rockford, says his company learned lessons from its experience fishing Asian carp out of the Illinois River and processing their harvest with an experimental machine in 2009.
“It would take $2 million to start up an operation, and we already did it once,” he says. “We’re still very active [but] it’s still not easy getting people to eat it.
“Business has got to make the numbers work,” Leeds continues. “If the goal is to eliminate Asian carp, what investors are out there to get involved in a project where the goal is to be put out of business? My partner and I are physicians, so we’re kind of in that situation, but it’s difficult.”
Steve McNitt is sales manager for Schafer Fisheries on the Mississippi River at Thomson, Ill., which is making it work.
“Fishing makes more sense than an electronic fence, which has not proven to be successful,” McNitt says. “Asian carp is a viable resource and there’s a worldwide need for cheap protein.
“We have about 100 fishermen we work with, all within about four hours, because we have to take care of the fish right away, and we offer organic fish fertilizer, sell them gutted, as meal, filets and more,” he continues.
New commercial fishing operations to capture, process and transport Asian carp could be pricey, but domestic demand for Asian carp fish meal or fertilizer is high, helping to make a business model feasible, says Garvey, at SIU.
But even such a common-sense approach would require investment of money and effort by business and government, plus a long-term commitment, the report says.
“The likely solution will be wise investment by management agencies, researchers and industry, with communication and transparency being critical,” Garvey says.
Meanwhile, American Heartland Fish Products says it’s converting a Grafton, Ill., facility to a carp processing plant at a cost of $5 million. The company says it has a three-year deal to provide more than 30 million pounds of processed carp to a Chinese customer.
Leeds is skeptical of an American market, saying, “In blind taste tests, people enjoy eating Asian carp, [but] as I’ve said, ‘To a dyslexic, carp is crap’.”
The executive summary of the SIU report is online at http://asiancarp.us/documents/EXECCARP2011.pdf