Can China Eat Enough Asian Carp to Save the Great Lakes?
If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em.
That's one solution being tossed around as officials try to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes and protect the region's water quality and $7 billion fishing industry. The voracious invasive species has already overwhelmed the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, providing plenty of opportunity for fishermen to aid in the fight and make a buck to boot.
But the bony fish has been a tough sell to American diners, who prefer plumper varieties that are easy to fillet. So this week, Big River Fish Corp. in Pearl, Illinois, will ship 40,000 pounds of Asian carp to China, where it's considered good eating instead of an environmental menace.
"It'll be the first of many shipments," says Ross Harano, the international marketing director at Big River. Since invading the Mississippi River basin after escaping from Southeastern aquaculture farms, the Asian carp has been crowding out catfish and other carp that the local fishing industry traditionally relies on. Big River has managed to do a fairly brisk business selling Asian carp to U.S. companies that produce gefilte fish -- about 2 million pounds worth last year. Another Illinois distributor, Schafer Fisheries in nearby Thompson, has also been exporting Asian carp to Israel (although that market has recently hit the skids due to tariff issues).
But with Asian carp amounting to 500 million pounds of biomass in the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers -- as many as nine out of every 10 fish sampled in some sections -- fish vendors haven't yet been able to drum up enough business to make a dent in the population. Asian carp are prolific eaters and reproducers that can weigh up to 100 pounds; they've made a splash on YouTube with their powerful leaps, which can even knock over boaters. Although fans say the fish has a pleasant, mild flavor, most Americans tend to shy away due to the surfeit of bones. That's not a problem for gefilte fish lovers because the bones are ground up with the meat, but that market isn't nearly large enough to handle all the excess carp in U.S. rivers. Schafer's is trying to market a ground-up version stateside for use in "tacos, chili, anything you'd use hamburger in," says owner Mike Schafer, but the efforts are slow going.
Bones are also easier to avoid if you eat with chopsticks, which explains why the fish is more popular across the Pacific, where it's both wild caught and raised in farms. Big River spent several years working out a deal to export Asian carp and has found a Chinese importer prepared to buy 30 million pounds a year -- a whopping increase over the 2 to 2.5 million pounds a year that Big River currently sells.
"The food consultant they sent said he'd been eating Asian carp all his life and that ours was the best he'd ever tasted," says Big River's Harano. Chinese rivers are often polluted and muddy, but the consultant said the catch from the Mississippi seemed to have a "wild, natural taste," which he put to the test with several Chinese recipes.
Schafer's, the only other major Midwestern Asian carp supplier, has also done small amounts of business with China, Singapore, and Romania, but its total carp business comes to only 12 million pounds a year, and a major portion of that has been with Israel.
Of course, shipping 30 million pounds of anything across the globe carries a hefty carbon footprint, but it also represents only a tiny portion of the fish shipped internationally. And with the Asian carp population ever-multiplying, experts in the Midwest say the benefits may outweigh the consequences. "If we harvest them hard enough, we can have an impact," says Duane Chapman, a fish biologist with the U.S. Geological Services who has helped develop an Asian carp management plan. Big River projects that its Chinese exports will be enough to reduce the Asian carp population to manageable levels in the Illinois and Mississippi rivers after about five years. At that point, the company plans to switch back to distributing other fish species, which will have the chance to rebound without the carp taking all their food and space -- or at least that's the plan.
Environmentalists don't have a problem with gobbling up as many of the fish as possible, but they also don't see it as a cure for the carp crisis.
"They've completely overwhelmed the ecosystem, so it makes complete sense to turn the problem into something that will provide some economic benefit. Commercial fishing could be one of many things we do to reduce the pressure," says NRDC attorney Thom Cmar. But cutting off the canals from the Great Lakes will still be crucial to stopping the fish's spread, he adds. "The canals have always been a conduit for invasive species in both directions -- including the round goby and zebra mussel -- and it's time that we cut off this critical pathway."