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Can China Eat Enough Asian Carp to Save the Great Lakes?

Filleting an Asian carp
Asian carp are too bony for American tastes but popular in Asian markets.
Midwest fish company to begin exports this week

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."

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Another idea would be to convince American diners to appreciate carp. I've had it marinated and it's not bad. I doubt if gefilte fish will ever be a widespread favorite, however.

I think overfishing Asian carp is a great idea. I only hope that this budding industry doesn't come to rely on the invasive fish and begin to demand restocking efforts to keep their industry alive as has happened with so many other fish stocks including many fish species not native to the region where they are stocked.

Awesome! Gotta love it when the free market actually comes up with a good solution to a problem! Great reporting NRDC. :-)

Sounds like a great idea but when commercial fisherman only get 13 cents a pound for asian carp its a hard sell for us. Most of us are waiting for the higher prices to justify the expence of gear and time.

EPA states and then asks:

Excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous entering the nations waters create pollution that is hard to track, contain, and control. Nutrient pollution is as damaging to our waters as it is complex, so finding effective ways to address it is critical. EPA and State agencies have used various approaches to tackle the problem but much more is needed to protect water bodies from these pollutants.

• What critical elements need to be included in an effective nutrient strategy?

• How should the strategies differ for protecting healthy and functioning watersheds versus those that need to be significantly restored due to previous pollution?

• What has worked for your organization, state, or tribe in controlling nutrient pollution? What hasn’t?


The great mid-American River system is the cesspool for thousands of cities, industries and farms. Many of the pollutants include soils which have been “washed” with industrial agricultural chemicals (non-point pollution) which when the soil is eroded, move to the rivers. These pollutants then grow algae and other micro-organisms, some of which create dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.

Fortunately, carp (and other critters) feed on these micro-organisms, thus reducing some of the pollution. However, the native fish population pays the price because of the disruption of their food chain. Studies now estimate that Asian carp (mostly Bighead and Silver) make up 95% of the fish biomass in most of these rivers. The Asian carp population has exploded over the past few years and now threaten the seven billion dollar fishing industry of the Great Lakes.

See: Asian Carps of the Genus Hypophthalmichthys (Pisces, Cyprinidae) ― A Biological Synopsis and Environmental Risk Assessment; ; Also see the Youtube documentaries: Part 1: Part 2:

Would a compromise work? First by reducing the Asian carp population by removing the breeders and secondly, by managing the carp population so as to allow native fish to recover. That way we allow the Asian carp to continue cleaning nutrients from the rivers and re-establish the native fish. It seems highly improbable to totally remove all Asian carp. There are additional benefits, namely the beneficial use of the harvested carp.

The ACBSR final report concluded that the physical removal of the carp was the best working solution. Mention was made of training vast numbers of fisher folk on how to catch carp. Bait and hook does not work since the carp are filter feeders. Only purse (or hoop) nets seem to work for skiff quantities. What is needed is a commercial approach to harvesting carp.

Carp Catchers Cooperative has such a plan (on digital record). See: Carp Catchers Co-op,—+A+BRIDGE+OVER+TROUBLED+WATERS

Carp Catchers Cooperative will be formed as a social entrepreneurial enterprise (L3C – Limited Liability Company), will build a fleet of three ships which will be able to harvest and process two tons of fish per hour. Currently, we have completed the design criteria, the initial material take-off and weight calculations and have a good start on the sourcing and pricing of materials and equipment. We have extensive research notes on nearly all technical aspects of the project. We are in need of about $300,000 grant with which to produce our working drawings, sourcing and pricing and submission to and seek approval by regulatory agencies. Please take a look at the Youtube videos and visit our website, then send me an email as to how you can help. Please pass this email letter on to everyone who can help us with the funding.

Jim Miller, President
Mutual Aid Society of America, Inc.

Solve the Asian carp problem in the US of A with your own knife and fork.


I think that was a dumb idea to begin with. A fish getting into the Great Lakes by a ballast of a ship is one thing, but intentionally putting it within reach? That's crazy! We've already got enough problems with zebra mussels covering everything, and keeping the lampreys at bay from destroying the trout population again.

I hope that intensive carp harvesting is carried out! Carp is delicious. It would also probably make pretty good fish sticks.

Feed it to prisoners. It's nutritious, cheap, and abundant. Sounds like a wonderful way to help to me.

Love it! As the saying goes, if nature "gives you lemons, than make lemonade."

Marketing this fish here or over seas is a huge mistake. It makes U.S. waters a viable fishery for invasive species. And If there is money to be made off this fish then it will never be eraticated. Sell this fish for profit, then it will take over all of the Great Lakes.
I find the term, "invasive species" to be extremely offensive and indicative of humanity's extreme superiority complex concerning other life forms on this planet.
It is man's fiddling around with nature and trying to control it that causes these kinds of problems worldwide. Humans will move animals around and then eventually kill them when things do not go exactly as planned.
Man's "solution" to one problem creates many more problems that he then feels the need to "fix" by assaulting nature in yet another way.
Homo sapiens is the only true "invasive species" on earth; creating more destruction of the planet than the billions upon billions of other life forms combined.
Our policies have harmed and killed our own kind so efficiently, along with the rest of the species on Earth, that we should be at the top of the list.
An "invasive species" is defined as a species that is
1) non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration and
2) whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health. (Executive Order 13112).

We are a big Chinese buyer for the Bighead fish. Would you like to work with us to supply us bighead fish for a long term contract? If interested, please e-mail us. Thanks H. Tam
Hi, I'm a Chinese American in the St Louis area running my own import/export business and is interested to help export Asian carp back to the Chinese market. Please contact me via e-mail:, and provide your detailed contact information. David
We have a team out now in the Mississippi area and beyond. We are now looking for a 'long term' buyer. Please email me at sylviaminisee@com Thanks, Morgan
I just hope something can be done. I agree though, fish 'em until they're gone, ship them to anywhere who wants them. Block off the canal. It's not fair to the commercial fisherman, charters, and sportsfishermen (American AND Canadian) of the Great Lakes, a lot of who weren't even around when they decided to introduce Asian Carp into States. I think that was a dumb idea to begin with. A fish getting into the Great Lakes by a ballast of a ship is one thing, but intentionally putting it within reach? That's crazy! We've already got enough problems with Zebra Mussels covering everything and barely keeping the Lampreys at bay from destroying the Trout population again. I commend you commercial fishermen of the Mississippi! Fish on! Get rid of them and myself and millions of other Canadians and Americans now and in decades to come will PRAISE you for it!
I know .. How we can get rid of them.. I'm looking to buy an abundance amount.