Sellers seek opportunity in rivers teeming with carp
By Dan Egan
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
CHILLICOTHE, Ill. - Arkansas fish farmer Jim Malone has some simple advice for those fretting that the Asian carp invasion raging across the Mississippi River basin will metastasize to the Great Lakes: Stop worrying and start fishing.
"I've never seen a (commercial) fisherman who can't clear out a body of water," said Malone, whose father was an early importer of the filter-feeding bighead and silver carp that have infested waterways across the heart of the continent. "If you put a price tag on it, they can fish out just about anything."
The problem is that price tag. This isn't sea bass or salmon or even catfish. These fish, which bear the unfortunate last name of carp, are species most Americans won't touch with a fork.
When Amy Tucker thinks of the jumping silver carp ravaging the Illinois River north of Peoria, the last thing on her mind, in fact, is dinner. She thinks of bug-eyed beasts flopping into pontoon boats and thrashing themselves into a mess of blood and mucus.
"I'll barely eat salmon," she said with a wince. "Carp? I don't think so."
Illinois fish salesman Steve McNitt has traveled to the other side of the world to try to coax foreign wholesalers into cashing in on the protein explosion that few on this continent can stomach.
McNitt raised lots of eyebrows in China with his tales of U.S. rivers teeming with this untold - and largely unwanted - bounty. The Chinese, after all, actually farm the same fish for their mild, flaky white fillets. But McNitt didn't fly home with a contract.
"There's all kinds of action, but I can't get the numbers right," he said one July afternoon, sitting in an air-conditioned office inside an otherwise steamy Schafer Fisheries fish processing plant in the Mississippi River town of Thomson, Ill.
McNitt said the Chinese fish buyers will pay a maximum of about 45 cents a pound for the carp, while his costs total about 30 cents a pound to buy, gut, freeze and box them. That leaves him around 15 cents a pound to ship them to China in refrigerated containers, and pay taxes.
Somewhere in there he's got to find a paycheck, and he's not finding one worth cashing.
"What they're willing to pay, and what I can get them for," he said, "it just doesn't work out."
The result is that America's grandest river system is bursting with fish that are to a large extent the aquatic and commercial equivalent of a swarm of locusts.
The fish, now found in at least 23 states, have yet to spill from the Mississippi River basin into the Great Lakes.
But it may be only a matter of time.
Orion Briney has become something of a mythical figure on the Illinois River. The 47-year-old has become the face of an industry that doesn't really exist. Yet.
He makes a decent living netting bighead carp, which he sells to McNitt for 18 cents a pound. McNitt guts those fish and ships them in refrigerated trucks to the East and West coasts, where there is a tiny market for them in Asian communities.
Briney is now a media magnet for his uncanny ability to land mountains of trophy-sized carp with his specially built skiff, the scale of which is so outrageously big that it appears, from the shore, as if a toddler has commandeered a common-sized boat. But it's super-sized for a reason; Briney can catch 15,000 pounds of bighead in his nets. Not in one day. In 25 minutes.
A little perspective: Wisconsin's 2005 quota for commercial perch fishing on all the state waters of Lake Michigan was 20,000 pounds. Not in one day. In the entire year.
McNitt said tales of Briney's prowess have so enthralled commercial fishermen from around the country that he gets calls almost every day from places as far away as Alaska.
"Is it true?" they ask, wanting to know how they can cash in on the action.
McNitt tells them yes, the number of Asian carp in the Illinois River is unfathomable. But don't bother coming.
"Don't sell your house and move," he tells them. "We don't have the market yet."
McNitt buys about 32,000 pounds of bighead a week, enough to keep Briney and a couple of other part-timers on the river for typically two days a week.
He said he'll perhaps double the volume of bighead he buys in the winter months, when more people are inclined to use the fish for soups. He said his job now is to figure out how to get America to start eating what it considers nothing more than natural trash.
The marketing problem has more to do with perception than palates, said United States Geological Survey biologist Duane Chapman.
"The flesh is excellent. It's very cod-like," said Chapman, who keeps about 30 pounds of bighead fillets stocked in his freezer. He and his three kids eat it about once a week. They sizzle it on the grill, douse it with curry, wrap it in fajitas, scoop it chilled as ceviche.
Chapman isn't alone in his rosy assessment of the flesh.
"It's got a great flavor and an excellent texture," said Dan Smith, chef at Milwaukee's Envoy restaurant in the Ambassador Hotel.
Smith, who tinkered with some bighead and silver carp fillets at the request of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, was particularly pleased with how well they worked in a classic Friday night fish fry recipe.
"It was really, really, really good," he said. But he doesn't see carp landing on his menu anytime soon. "People are still afraid of the name."
Yet Chapman said bighead and silver carp are especially safe to eat. Unlike their cousin, the common carp, they don't make their living in the often-contaminated muck on a river bottom, but instead use their open mouths and filtering gills to strip plankton from the water. And because they don't feast on smaller fish, toxins such as mercury and PCBs don't work their way up the food chain and into their flesh.
"They grow fast, which also keeps contaminants from storing up, and while they do have a hefty amount of fat, which can trap contaminants, that fat is easily stripped away during the cleaning," Chapman said.
If a body of water is clean enough to make other fish species safe to eat, Chapman said, you typically "don't need to worry about eating these fish."
Fisheries biologist Robert Glennon, who works for the Arkansas fish farming family that initially brought in the silver and bighead carp to the United States, sees the infestation as unfortunate, but not without an upside for a river system whose native species have been struggling for more than a century.
"If you can cut it up and eat it, it's a fisheries resource," he said. "We should feel fortunate we have this abundance."
McNitt is thinking the trick to capitalizing on this alleged bounty is to convert it into fish sticks and fish patties, and he's hoping a state grant will come through for his company to purchase a machine to do the processing.
"We're going to have to get cracking. We have to mince this... Read More