Rivers Full of Carp

Fish Bones

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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
 

BigCliff

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I'm more open minded than most when it comes to consuming odd animals, but carp ceviche is just tooooooooo much. I'll take mine fully cooked.

I think they guy will eventually be sucessful in getting bighead carp to become a major source of protein, but an invasive species that consumes and grows that much can't be a totally good thing.

All that said, I would love to tie into one and hear a reel scream.
 

Troutwhisperer

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You wana know what i think about this infestation,

I say let us take our shotguns and shoot them out of the air behind boats.
Its like bird huntin right, but instead of helping the population of a species where helping whipe out an invasive out of an river so other species thrive.
 

Red Owl

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My take is this: George Harvey of trout fishing fame would fly fish for carp and claim they gave a good fight but those carp Harvey caught never flew through the air. If the new Asian or bighead carp can be taken on a fly, well, seems like these really big fish that fly through the air would be pretty big sport.
 

mhclayton

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I sat through a carp fishing seminar by Barry Reynolds the other day at the NM Trout Symposium, and he did a great job talking about techniques, tackle and some of the challenges of fishing for the common carp. He likened them to fresh water bonefish in terms of the difficulty approaching them (the only fish with an inner ear mechanism), and technique which is mostly sight-fishing. It is cool to think that you could catch a 20+ pound fish on a fly in an urban area, which can present its own problems-- "in some parts of downtown Denver, be sure you get out before dark"-- he also talked about finding a human skeleton during one of his expeditions.

It is ironic that the carp has such a bad reputation as a food fish, since that is exactly what the common carp was imported to be. Importation was a strategic decision on the federal level during the Grant administration because the native fish were being decimated by market providers. They have minimal fat in which to store PCBs, etc, and since many carp are primarily plankton eaters, there is less risk of concentrating toxic chemicals as they travel up the food chain through minnows, etc. Unfortunately, until someone comes up with a plankton fly, the Asian carp will be tough for fly fishers to pursue.

Reynolds pointed out that some of the carp's reputation is related to the toxic, polluted water carp are often found in, but you can't blame the fish for being a survivor and making the best of a situation that we created. They would probably prefer to live in pure, unpolluted water if given the choice.
 

anatolek

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It is interesting that people will eat a Chilean Sea Bass even though the non-commercial name is Patagonia Toothfish Patagonian toothfish - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia but wince at Carp....it is all about perception..maybe we need to start an "illinois river bass" marketing camapaign and ship it like the sea bass ...without the head. It all comes down to marketing but I do have to say if you put a price on its head the market will keep them under control.
 

stasher1

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I really surprised the pet food companies haven't jumped all over this (pun intended). It's a cheap source of protein, and I don't think cats really care what kind of fish is in the can.
 

ant

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Catch them and ship them to Ethiopia and other 3 world countries. They get a good source of protien and we get rid of the fish. It's a win-win.
 

Brewmaster

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There are folks in Illinois who have found a way to sell them - see the attached article from the Alton Telegraph newspaper from Monday 3/15/10:

Business hopes to sell invasive carp to Asians
March 15, 2010 6:10 AM
By DAN BRANNAN
PEARL ILLINOIS - Big River Fish Corp. in Pearl and area fishermen are doing their part to make use of the overabundance of Asian carp in both the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

Big River Fish is purchasing Asian carp from area fishermen and distributing them throughout the United States, and the company soon may be sending them abroad as far away as China and Japan. In China, Asian carp are considered a delicacy.

Rick Smith and Lisa McKee are the joint owners of Big River Fish in Pearl. Big River Fish has been in negotiations with Chinese and Japanese business leaders about exporting Asian carp and is hoping for some type of agreement in the matter soon.

"We have been working on this agreement for many years," McKee said. "If this goes through, it would bring employment throughout the state of Illinois. Fishermen would be hired on, and it would help the Pearl area. Pearl has been a depressed area in the past. We would need millions of pounds of Asian carp each year if this goes through."

Ross Harano is leading international marketing efforts for Big River Fish. He said the company is working to develop clients in China.

"The Asian carp in China are farm-grown, and the water is not as pure as here," he said. "This is a tremendous opportunity to turn a fish not viewed as environmentally friendly into an economic engine. It's miraculous. The Asian carp are very edible."

Presently, Big River is purchasing about 30,000 pounds of Asian carp a week. The invasive species, which is not native to North America, is blamed for a number of problems in the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, where scientists fear they may harm populations of native fish. Wildlife officials also are working to prevent Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes, where it is feared they could decimate the lucrative fishing industry.

Big River Fish also exports other river fish - buffalo, yellow carp and catfish.

"We are going to hire a lot of fishermen and create a lot of jobs if we reach this agreement with the Chinese," Harano said. "The fish have to be filleted, washed and frozen. It is an interesting project for the region.

"This is an interesting program," he said. "No one else is doing this right now. The message that we have is we are basically taking a product - Asian carp - and utilizing it as a value-added product to provide income for the company and hire more people here to process Asian carp to export."

Harano has an interesting background, once serving as director of trade for the state of Illinois.

Jim Beasley, owner of Beasley Fish Market in Grafton, said fishing for Asian carp is more of a sideline role for his crew now, but it has become a dominant species in the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. He said if Big River Fish's needs expand, it probably will increase their incentive to catch Asian carp.

"It would be nice to sell more Asian carp," he said. "We typically fish for Asian carp with nets. Each net is 100 yards long and has different depths, either 8- or 16-foot deep. We might tie three or four nets together to get them and drive them and beat on the boat, then pick them up. Some days are easy to catch a lot, and other days we have to do several sets to get them."

Beasley said he wasn't sure what effect catching more Asian carp would have on the overall fish population in the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, but he said it might make it easier for his crew to get fish to the market.

"It is hard to fish for catfish and buffalo around the Asian carp this time of year," he said.

McKee didn't put a specific number on how many pounds of Asian carp they would need, but she said fishermen would be able to fish every day, including all winter and through the summer. Also, she said Big River Fish would expand its freezers and processing lines, and would hire more employees to process the fish.

Jason Bak, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said anything like this type of project that would reduce the number of Asian carp in the two area rivers would be positive because of the present overpopulation.

Harano pointed out that if Big River Fish orchestrates pulling 30 million pounds of Asian carp out of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, it should sure make a difference in taking them out of the biomass.

"It should allow other fish like buffalo, carp and walleye to come back in the river," he said. "The Asian carp are too large of a biomass right now. The answer is to eat them and find a market."
 

earlythursday

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Aim low and let go...

We have quite a large problem with the carp in my neck of the woods. They tend to overeat the available bottom resources and put a strain on the other species we prefer to fish for.

I've yet to find a better removal method than bowhunting them.
The bowfishing rig is inexpensive and once you get the hang of it you can pull them out hand over fist.

Although some folks might not think this method is very sporting, I would like to note that I did in fact spend quite a lot of time trying to intice them to take a fly...and had ZERO luck.
 

Pennell

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Hi All,
Surely they could be fooled into taking a fly other plankton feeders are ! Mullet, milkfish, etc. Imitate algae.

The commercial exploitation and finding a market for them is all , as the man said, about perception. Market them with an attractive name .Start with low prices , get celebrity cooks involved, overseas food programmes ? etc. etc . It's not rocket science .

They sell spur DOGFISH here in the UK as " Rock salmon" . What do you prefer ? How about "Riversteak" :):):)

Only a matter of time.
 

Brewmaster

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There are lots of folks addressing the asian carp in the Illinois River and Mississippi River by attacking all aspects - setting up businesses to buy/process/sell locally, working on exporting to asia, bringing in specialty chefs to teach the general community (and restaurants) how to prepare the fish, and generally encouraging folks to treat the invasion as a new resource to be managed and consumed. A couple of articles from the newspaper of one of the local town's on the rivers edge are listed below:

Group want to start fish plant in Grafton | fish, grafton, carp - Local News - The Telegraph


A silver(fin) lining | parola, chef, fish - Local News - The Telegraph

'Yes, we can' eat Asian carp, chef says | parola, chef, fish - Local News - The Telegraph
 

bm3moose

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Are the impacts of commercial fishing going to have any effects on native species like it does on all other fisheries. As far as eating them, there was a time not too long ago when Lobsters were served to prisoners, and Tuna were considered garbage. Seafood markets are bound to change, just have a celebrity endorse them on Facebook and they'll be knee deep in carp in minutes.
 

damod

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I dunno if there is really an attractive name to give carp.. I do know that if you cook them right they are pretty fantastic actually so that lends creedance to getting pro-cooks involved..

But the name... hmm.... Asian Yummyfish... There's a name that will sell!!
 

jasonm2089

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We have a lot of carp where I live to in the river and local lakes. They get huge in Northern Indiana I never would of thought to eat them though.

I heard they taste really fishy and oily is that true?
 

wilsoncs3980

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I've actually eaten carp and it's really pretty good. Like the guy says, it's very similar to cod. It doesn't taste fishy like catfish. I'd take carp over catfish any day.............
 
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